A ridge too far: the corrugated ironies of Brixton
25-27 Market Row, London SW9 8LD. Three courses with wine and coffee: £25-£30
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.