It’s lunch hour at Momo Restaurant Familial. Some waiters deliver small plates of stuffed olives; others trickle rosewater over the hands of guests about to tuck into steaming mounds of carefully spiced meats and vegetables. The throbbing bass of rai music downshifts to classical vocals, and then picks back up again. Wafts of sandalwood incense mingle with the scent of fresh mint.
This atmospheric hideaway, in a cul-de-sac off Regent Street in central London, has for nearly five years been attracting an eclectic cross-section of the hip, the famous and the gastronomically discerning. Its creator, Algerian-born Mourad Mazouz, goes by "Momo," and he has by all accounts pulled off a restaurateur’s Triple Crown: He has combined the traditional, the trendy and the tasty, and has single-handedly propelled North African cuisine into the realm of London chic. At the same time, he has opened ears as much as mouths with newly marketed personal music mixes. Perhaps most refreshing of all, he has persuaded even the most proper in this city that you don’t have to sit bolt upright to enjoy a meal.
"It’s not straight North African cuisine," says culinary publisher and food writer Anne Dolamore. "He’s given it the right modern twist and produced a phenomenon others are keen to copy. He’s opened up Moorish food to people who hadn’t tasted it before."
London restaurant critic Rory Ross gives Momo credit for leading "people who eat out to a greater awareness of the food of the region. Momo’s put his food philosophy in a fashionable and trendy setting so that it has become influential. And his personality combines with the atmosphere, ambience and the music to create a unique restaurant."
That personality comes out in a gracious, energetic understatement of demeanor, behind which lies no small entrepreneurial ambition. "Most of all, I hope they enjoy the traditional North African hospitality," he explains as he moves to greet a regular. "We want our guests to leave feeling on top of the world. It’s important to offer each one of them something individual."
That approach seems to work. First-time visitors to Momo’s are taken step-by-step through a fairly complex menu. "The food is good," agrees diner Malcom Beeton, who had heard about the restaurant from a friend. He has chosen tagine—a slow-cooked lamb stew—with apricots, "although I wouldn’t have known what to choose without Mohammed here recommending." Mohammed Essedine Nasri is the high-energy maître d’hôtel from Tunisia. He has worked with Momo from day one.
"Whatever a client comes in for, they always leave with more than they expected," says Nasri. That might be a house recipe hastily scribbled on a scrap of paper, an extra starter "on the house," or simply a genuine smile and personal attention. Although not all of Momo’s staff are Arab, the restaurant runs on the easygoing, helpful attitude so common throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In this respect, Momo has kept the place true to his own Algerian roots and to his parents, Berbers from the Kabyle region, who instilled in him "a tremendous respect for humanity," he says.
His first North African restaurant was in Paris. He called it "404," after the Peugeot sedan that is ubiquitous in Algeria, and—like the car—it still runs well, he says. Then came Momo Restaurant Familial in London in 1997. More recently, he has opened "Mô’s," a suq-cum-café adjoining the restaurant that serves snacks and strong coffee, and where anything and everything in sight is for sale: the plates, the tea set, the coffee service, the chairs, the inlaid backgammon boards and the Momo-compiled CDs that play on the house sound system.
In 2000, Momo published The Momo Cookbook: A Gastronomic Journey through North Africa. The beautifully illustrated coffee-table book covers all the countries of the Maghrib, and there are sections on the history of specific foods of ordinary people. "As readers cook the dishes, I want them to understand more about the places where I grew up," he says. "It’s not all about recipes."
"Mô’s is the embodiment of North African cool," claims one young guest, drawing on a nargilah (waterpipe) and emitting a blast of apple-scented smoke. "The man’s tuned into what London listens to and then is always one step ahead of the game."
Hearing this, Momo laughs. "I must be crazy. I work non-stop, more than 14 hours a day. But it’s fun. The music just grew out of the need to create a special atmosphere."
So far he has produced two compilation CDs, each blending classical Arab music with the likes of Algerian rock-fusionist Rachid Taha. Called simply "Arabesque 1" and "Arabesque 2," their appeal lies in the way the mix draws you in, and for first-time listeners it’s one of the best introductions to rai on the market. In the works are two more compilations: "Africanesque" and "Indianesque."
There is also Sketch, a huge, new dining/entertainment concept on nearby Conduit Street that Momo has a bit of trouble describing. When he does, he sounds more like a conceptual artist than an entrepreneur with investors to convince. "It won’t be like anything you’ve ever seen before," he says vaguely. "When other people say they’re doing something new, it looks old to me. This will be a combination of the ways in which all of us live."
Scheduled to open in May, Sketch is clearly his most ambitious venture so far. He could lose his shirt if it fails, but he seems unconcerned. "Too much planning is boring. If you want a place to have soul and be spontaneous, you just can’t force it along according to a timetable."
Varying a formula—even a successful one—instead of repeating it is just one of the ways Momo has kept ahead of the game. He’s rejected lucrative offers to open a chain of Momo restaurants throughout the Middle East. "I’ve kept my kasbah way of doing business. I like to get personally involved in everything. I’m hands-on." Today, ensuring the business runs smoothly means doing what needs to be done, even if that’s sweeping the floor or washing dishes. He says this "keeps him more grounded." The result is a very personal and cared-for Maghrib-style oasis in the metropolis, and a refreshing new perspective for Londoners on the North African way of doing business—and, of course, the North African way of eating.
Sylvia Smith is a broadcast journalist who travels frequently to Africa and the Middle East to pursue her interest in Islamic cultures.
Rena Pearl (www.renapearl.com) is a free-lance photographer in London and an associate member of the British Institute of Professional Photography.