Everybody in London who’s into food is into Brixton: The market spills out onto the main street in a noise of colour and smell. You can barely fit onto the pavement on the right-hand side of Atlantic road for all the piled up boxes of veg in the summer, which are replaced by layers of dangerously impacted ice from the fishmongers when the weather gets colder.
As I was exiting the tube the other day, a young man, Fred Perry t-shirt pulled melodramatically over his nose, remarked: “Jesus Christ, this whole place smells of meat” – I think he thought this was a bad thing, the idiot. Yes, my boyfriend had to swerve to avoid an entire sheep’s skull as he was cycling to work last week, but this is the kind of thing that makes an area interesting.
I’m genuinely surprised that some people are still afraid of Brixton, which despite the aforementioned quirks is now teeming with yummy mummies, fixie-bikes and trendy bars. However, whilst some may complain that the area is getting too middle class, I love the way that the village has evolved as a result. Don’t worry, there’s still jerk chicken, goat stew or rice n’ peas to be had, and at the end of a night out we still flock like pilgrims to the unexpectedly good ‘Morley’s’ (it certainly does taste better). But add ‘Franco Manca’, ‘Honest Burger’, ‘Brick Box’ and ‘Cornercopia’ to the mix and you have yourself a ‘fringe food scene’, as the Observer gushingly...er...observed a few months ago. Put simply, you could spend ages looking for a 50%-off deal on toptable only to end up at a mediocre restaurant in the centre, albeit one where the waitresses take your coat, or you could head to Brixton village and eat really great food at a really great price. Let your wallet decide, my friends.
One day soon I’ll spend a few weekends visiting every single restaurant in the village, so look out for that blog – it’ll be a biggie. For now let's cast our eye past the village and further up Atlantic road.
‘Courtesan’ is a new Dim Sum bar that opened up opposite ‘Kaff’ late last month. Don’t be fooled by the exterior, which is pretty crap and makes the restaurant look permanently closed (someone had the bright idea of painting the whole place blood red and putting pieces of MDF across the top half of all of the windows). The effect is more ‘Kings Cross massage parlour’ than ‘trendy restaurant’, so I’m hoping that this is an interim problem which will be sorted once the place starts to turn a profit. The reason for the MDF becomes clear once inside, as we find ourselves walking through a ‘minimalist Chinese empire’ interior. It’s all dark varnish and low lighting, which is ultra luxurious and made me feel like I should’ve been practising calligraphy rather than eating pork buns. I loved it.
For those unfamiliar with Dim Sum, let me explain: what would be the result if Italy admitted that pasta is essentially quite dull and invented a style of tapas with an exciting range of contrasting flavours instead? Italy’d be a bit disappointed because Dim Sum got there first, that’s what. And that would never happen anyway because Italian food is going to remain boring forever and ever.
When we eventually got served, my boyfriend and I ordered the following, which I have marked out of five for your convenience:
• Turnip pork cakes – 3/5: A stodgy hash brown served with sweet chilli dip. Not the most exciting flavour-wise, but definitely the most filling plate.
• Duck Puffs (or Sou) - 2/5: This is a little piece of duck wrapped in puff pastry and topped with sesame seeds. There’s nothing wrong with them apart from that they’re a little bland and could’ve used a meaty sauce as an accompaniment.
The pork cakes and duck puffs:
• Chicken coriander dumplings – 1/5: Boring
• Wasabi king prawn dumplings – 4/5: Whilst all the dumplings are a tad small, these were unbeatable flavour-wise. The prawns were fresh and flavoursome, rather than soggy, as they tend to be, and the ample wasabi packed a punch. The rice-flour skin is beautiful and not too thick.
• Monk vegetable dumplings – 3/5: These were tasty but very mushroomy, which I wasn’t expecting. If there was one thing our selection lacked, it was a fresh vegetable plate, so I couldn’t help but be a tiny bit disappointed by these.
• Roast pork buns (or Char Sui Baau) – 5/5: I am partial to these anyway, so I was always going to give them full marks. Char Sui buns are pieces of pork smothered in a rich barbeque sauce and surrounded by a fluffy wheat flour bun. The bun is then coated in a sugar glaze and baked, which gives it a slightly sweet flavour. It’s all very indulgent, but each bun is so small that it’s not overwhelming. Wonderful stuff.
All of the above came in threes apart from the turnip pork cakes and duck puffs, of which there were four. I’m not sure if there’s something culturally significant about threes, but most Dim Sum restaurants serve dumplings and buns this way. This is worth bearing in mind if you’re a party of four and were hoping to try every plate, because it ain’t gonna happen.
Apart from the service and exterior this place was top notch, including the price, which at approximately £4 a plate is pretty reasonable.
Zai Jian and happy dumpling-ing!