A ridge too far: the cor­ru­gated ironies of Brix­ton

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

25-27 Mar­ket Row, Lon­don SW9 8LD. Three cour­ses with wine and cof­fee: £25-£30

per head

The im­pact of scenery on ap­petite and palate re­mains one of the more cu­ri­ously un­ex­plored by­ways of the foodie world. There are sev­eral aca­demic pa­pers on the mat­ter, in­clud­ing the catchily en­ti­tled “An Anal­y­sis of Psy­cho-Chem­i­cal Re­ac­tions Re­lated to the Sen­sual Ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Food In­duced by the Aes­thetic En­vi­ron­ment” by Dr Apoc­rypha von Coblerz of Salzburg Univer­sity. But for those un­will­ing to plough through her the­sis, this will be a mat­ter of sub­jec­tive opin­ion.

I’m in two minds. On the one hand, ex­pe­ri­ence teaches that a dish served in a pub gar­den over­look­ing a beau­ti­ful Devo­nian val­ley will taste much bet­ter than the iden­ti­cal dish served in the pokey, stan­dard gas­tropub din­ing room within.

On the other, an en­tirely un­pic­turesque vista need not di­min­ish the en­joy­ment of a meal. This was my key­note find­ing from din­ner at Prima Donna in Brix­ton Mar­ket, where the vista from a con­crete-floored al­ley is a row of shops, or “units”, such as Ralph’s Gift Box, closed up for the evening and shut­tered in cor­ru­gated iron.

Why this ini­tially came as a shock I can­not say. All I can do is para­phrase Basil Fawlty, yet again, and ask my­self what I ex­pected to see at night from a ta­ble in a labyrinthine cov­ered mar­ket in south Lon­don – the Hang­ing Gar­dens of Baby­lon?

Dur­ing a half-hour wait for my friends (en­tirely ex­cus­able since the male half of the cou­ple is a tow­er­ing fig­ure in the field of obituaries, and thus a keen stu­dent of all things late), the charm­less­ness of the scenery did noth­ing to abate my gnaw­ing hunger. Far from it, I was close to ask­ing a wry waiter if it would be OK to or­der in from the nearby Happy Dumpling. Think­ing bet­ter of that, I pon­dered the means – med­i­ta­tion, maybe, or a long cy­cle of rein­car­na­tions – by which a dumpling might el­e­vate it­self from melan­choly to hap­pi­ness.

When my friends ar­rived, they were swift to ap­pre­ci­ate the ur­ban charm of an al­ley that bus­tled en­gag­ingly with a novel au­ral sym­phony. From the left, as we sat out­side the restau­rant at one end of a ta­ble for eight, came in­dis­tinct reg­gae; from the right, the sound of Kraftwerk.

The cor­rect mu­si­cal ac­com­pa­ni­ment, though, would have been the samba. Prima Donna serves Brazil­ian food, and with that enor­mous coun­try such a ris­ing power, and poised to host next sum­mer’s World Cup, I should prob­a­bly bluff in­ti­mate knowl­edge of its cui­sine. But hav­ing spent two days in Rio, it would be de­ceit­ful of me to pass judg­ment on the au­then­tic­ity of what we ate, be­yond ob­serv­ing that the pres­ence among the starters of hal­loumi and chorizo left the heavy lift­ing in the Au­then­tic­ity Stakes to the main cour­ses. Said hal­loumi, char­grilled on toast with toma­toes which brazenly con­tra­vened the Prof­i­teer­ing Restau­ra­teurs (Sod the Pun­ters) Act 1996, by tast­ing recog­nis­ably of tomato, was as good a ren­di­tion of that waxen Cypriot ewe’s cheese as you’d have any right to ex­pect. The same went for the chorizo, also grilled and made ut­terly de­lec­ta­ble by a honey syrup glaze; spicy chicken wings with sour cream were prop­erly crispy, and had a de­cent chilli kick.

“This,” said one of my late friends, through a mouth­ful of a had­dock and ca­per fish­cake that fur­ther in­fringed the above leg­is­la­tion by tast­ing of fish rather than potato, “is out­stand­ing street food.”

The three house spe­cial­i­ties which fol­lowed, once the mu­si­cal med­ley had given way to an un­likely mash-up that savvier ele­ments in the mar­ket might style Bob Mar­ley vs Soft Cell, were recog­nis­ably Brazil­ian. The national dish of fei­joada is a stew of black beans with sausage (here, chorizo again), pork, beef, bay leaves and spices, looked all dark and brood­ing – if Heath­cliff were a casserole, this would be it – but tasted bland. Es­con­did­inho is not the guy who deputised for Jairz­inho in the im­mor­tal 1970 World Cup squad, as I as­sumed, but pi­quant roast veg­eta­bles sand­wiched be­tween two thick slabs of cas­sava mash. Pri­mar­ily for its tex­tu­ral con­trast, this was the pick of the trio.

Ridicu­lously enor­mous beef ribs, slow-baked and then fin­ished on the grill and slathered in molho de chur­rasco, a smokey bar­be­cue sauce, looked like they came straight from the Flint­stones’ recipe book, and took the lau­rels for com­edy. A salad of green beans, mange tout, radish, pump­kin seeds, tomato and or­ange zest was zingy.

“The starters were bet­ter than the mains,” said one of us, speak­ing for all, “and you’d prob­a­bly do bet­ter to stick to those; but I liked ev­ery­thing. And though I’m usu­ally a com­plete light­ing fa­natic, and this al­ley is pretty much lit by search­lights, this is a re­ally jolly place to eat.”

We fin­ished with cakes, which ranged from the light (rasp­berry, amaretto and blueberry) to a choco­late and cream cheese that should have come with a plunger. Th­ese were the only pud­dings avail­able, said the droll waiter, who later as­sured us as he brought the cof­fee that there’s a lot of cake in Brazil.

A glance at the me­tal shut­ters op­po­site sug­gested he was bring­ing a hugely en­joy­able din­ner in a mem­o­rable set­ting to a close with a rare and pre­cious in­stance of cor­ru­gated irony.

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