If versatility is the key to surviving a recession, Stroud Green’s cool but cosy Sugar Lounge should make it though; it trebles as a vibey cocktail bar, late-night dance venue and decent Turkish restaurant.
The term shabby chic could have been coined for this place. Paint of every dark, rich, moody hue decorates the walls, except where groovy ‘60s-style wallpaper breaks out. The floor is of well-worn tiles except for patches of even better-worn wooden boards. Chandeliers hang from the high ceilings, coloured voiles and fairy lights adorn the windows. There’s slouchy sofas, moody lighting and jazzy fusion music. It’s a big venue of 100 covers, divided into a large dining room and bar, plus an area that can be cordoned off for private parties with DJs and dancing till 2 at weekends.
The fact that Sugar Lounge has clearly been made over on the tightest of budgets actually works in its favour, giving it a laid back, Middle-East-meets-Soho-boho ambience. Staff are friendly and relaxed. You could easily make a night of it here, starting with cocktails in the sofa area, then moving to one of the battered wooden tables for a three-course Turkish feast, then reclining again for coffee and a nightcap.
Even at the best-run establishments, things occasionally go awry; a generous bowl of complimentary olives – big, green, glistening specimens – look irresistible but taste overwhelmingly of burnt plastic. One is more than enough. Onto the menu proper which features 13 cold and 10 hot mezes, although even more options are soon to be introduced. A mixed platter (£6) is fun for two to share, and includes moreishly nutty hummus, a fresh and clean-tasting tabbuoleh (bulgur wheat, parsley and tomato salad), an intriguing kisir (sweet and slightly hot cracked wheat, nuts, tomatoes and herbs), perfectly okay tzatziki, and a gorgeously smoky puree of aubergine blended with garlic, yoghurt and sesame.
Sometimes, simplicity is the way to go; a salad of feta, melon and walnut (£3.50) arrives undressed and undecorated, and all the better for it, the salty cheese, unusually sweet melon and toasted nuts forming an outstanding taste combination.
From the hot selection, calamari marinated in vodka (£3.95) features good, crunchy batter, the herby seasoning of which evokes memories of Sunday roast stuffing. There’s no vodka flavour but the melting tenderness of the squid indicates it has done its job. The accompanying, perky leaf, herb and tomato salad is well worth eating.
Sixteen main course options (though, again, more are on the cards) include classics like kleftiko and kebabs. The Sugar Lounge Speciality (£9.50) is a hefty portion of moist, minced lamb kofte with tomato sauce, topped with creamy, acidic yoghurt which really lifts the dish. From the seafood specials, sea bass, though the most expensive at £12, is something of a bargain; no fewer than three moist, flavoursome fillets arrive en papillote (sealed in paper) perched atop a delicious ratatouille featuring peppers, tomato, aubergine and onion, all proving that food can be simultaneously delicious and healthy. A side salad is fine but superfluous.
Half a dozen desserts, all £3.50, major on Middle Eastern favourites, plus hot chocolate pudding and creme brulee for those seeking something more international. Baklava is less sweet and lighter than expected – and all the better for it – and comes with toasted walnuts and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
A modest wine list features five whites, five reds and a solitary rose, although an expanded list should be available soon. Commendably, virtually everything is available by the 175 or 250ml glass. The house white and red (both describes only thus, £3.30/£4.80/£13.00) are both more than pleasant quaffers, and very fair at the price. A Spanish Rioja Blanco, Rivallana Ondarre (£4.50 for 175ml, £17 a bottle) is fresh, oaky and apple-y, whilst a Shiraz cabernet Opal Ridge from Australia (£3.75/£4.25/£14.30) delivers a big, knock-out punch of blackberries. All the wines are served in lovely, unusual glassware you’d expect to find in a friend’s home rather than a pub or restaurant.
Cocktails priced from £6.60 to £8.15 include all the classics like Martinis, Mojitos, daiquiris, a Bloody Mary and an Long Island Iced Tea. There are bottled beers and Asahi on draft, shots, juices and fizzies, smoothies and healthy-sounding shakes (orange, banana and yoghurt, for example), all at reasonable prices. Teas include English, Early Green and fresh mint, whilst all the usual coffee suspects – latte, espresso single or double, Americano and, of course, Turkish – are available.
The Last Word
In Stroud Green Road’s crowded dining scene, this wacky, cosy venue finds its niche. This is thanks not so much to the tasty, Turkish food – good value and of above-average quality though it undoubtedly is – as to the relaxed ambience and versatility of the place. You feel you could pop in at any time of the day or night, dolled up or dressed down, for coffee, a snack, lunch, drinks after work, full dinner or late-night full-on dancing. Lucky locals might end up spending far more time there than they mean to.