Words: Helena Goodrich
Brixton, 2017: a land where wine bars neighbour shabby night-clubs, seasoned market sellers flog questionable meat next to modern tapas restaurants.
The pungent aroma of weed wafts through the streets past young professionals and locals alike. The area may have gentrified beyond recognition in the past decade but it sure hasn’t lost its character.
Owner Hammant Patel Villa has picked this culturally diverse location to host his new restaurant and bar Courtesan, an homage to dim-sum. I have fond memories of my first dim-sum experience at The Royal China in the heart of Chinatown where seemingly endless plates of sticky glutinous buns appeared from waiter’s trollies to be communally prodded with chopsticks and slathered in soy sauce.
Dim-Sum means ‘to touch the heart’ and traditionally is a selection of small delicacies, created to present the finest morsels to the Royal Court in China. Historically courtesans were at the heart of the court, representing beauty and decadence. Villa wants to restore honour and attention to the spirit of the courtesan.
Entering Courtesan, I find myself in a dimly lit room, decorated with dark wood, lanterns and Chinese trinkets. A stage at the back promises to provide cabaret performances. The downstairs bar and cosy seating area also hosts an elaborate performance space. The atmosphere is decadent and seductive. We’re treated to a burlesque performance, an effusion of glitter and feathers. It is enjoyable but makes for a distracting dining experience, but if you were simply attending for a few drinks it would make for a fun evening.
The drinks menu is a thoughtful commentary on the ‘courtesan’ theme, listing ‘court cocktails’ with unusual ingredients and poetic descriptions, such as the signature ‘Courtesan: who is free and who captivates’, a blend of morello cherry liqueur, vodka and prosecco. I sampled the ‘Courtier’, a powerful blend of smoky lapsang souchong tea, whisky, chilli and fig liqueur. Sadly the smokey flavour is overpowering, like ingesting a barbecue in liquid form. My friend’s cocktail containing violet liqueur tastes overwhelmingly of soap. I applaud the concepts but unfortunately the flavours are about as well balanced as Donald Trump’s views on immigration.
All the liquors and wines are made be women in the ‘spirit’ of worshipping the divine feminine courtesan. The kitchen is also entirely run by women. Talking to Villa about this he is clearly passionate about the idea of honouring women. Hospitality, and kitchens in particular, are typically male dominated and it is excellent to see a business taking the initiative to support female chefs.
One of the main appeals behind dim sum is being able to share lots of different dishes and taste a variety of flavours. Courtesan has taken an untraditional ‘fusion’ approach to this idea. I am highly sceptical of fusion food; it requires a lot of skill to combine cuisines without losing the integrity of the dish. Unfortunately the result here is more of a ‘confusion’ than ‘fusion’. The opening dishes of pickled vegetables and prawn crackers are everything you could hope for from these simple snacks but unfortunately the more ambitious dishes fell short. Ricotta and spinach just don’t belong in a Chinese style dumpling, nor does spicy sweet potato. The prawn and salmon dumplings are woefully glue-like in texture and lacking in flavour. The duck buns are redeemingly flavourful morsels in a sea of forgettable flavours.
Next up are puff pastry parcels. It is unclear what these westernised creatures are doing on a supposedly Chinese menu but sadly nothing about them commands my attention. Fried seabass is soggy and bland, while frog’s legs, an attempt to be daring, are frankly unpleasant. Desert of chocolate and mango truffles could do with a punchier mango flavour but otherwise they taste like chocolate, perfectly pleasant but unremarkable.
As with high class lady, spending the night with Courtesan doesn’t come cheap. Each small plate costs between five to ten pounds but since you need a fair few to fill up and cocktails are around eight pounds, a meal with drinks would set you back about fifty pounds a head. Whilst you might justify spending this on a top quality meal, the food here is average at best. You’d be better off heading to Chinatown.
I applaud the ideas behind Courtesan and clearly Villa has passion for the project but the attention to detail is lacking and the fusion fails to fuse. There’s just too much going on at this restaurant/ bar/ cabaret club. More attention needs to go into what should be the main event: the food. The spirit of the courtesan is in there somewhere but she’s lost her way. Perhaps she is wandering the streets of Brixton somewhere…
69-73 Atlantic Road
Tel: 020 8127 8677