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Words: Adam Boatman
Jamaican restaurant Cottons is famous for its world-record breaking selection of rums – an unbelievable 372.
But it’s actually been a Caribbean stalwart in Notting Hill since the 80s.
However, the recent expansions to Notting Hill, Shoreditch and Vauxhall (coming soon) appear to be a real sign of intent. I’m visiting the new restaurant in Shoreditch to try see if their big Carribean flavours have made it out east.
Now sitting proudly on Curtain Street with all its doors thrown open, Cottons looks like a veranda to a different world. Caribbean kitsch would be a good way to describe its interior. Colourful walls covered in murals of straw huts and smiling villagers, netted glass bottles and hanging model boats, create a kind of cartoony expression of life across the Atlantic.
My concern when a restaurant casts their eyes to the horizon is that the food might suffer neglect. Despite some incredibly delicious starters, this is the case for Cottons – if only a little bit.
Let’s start with the good. Best of all, the service. The staff are fantastic. Professional but warm, Cottons is welcoming from start to finish, with a team who are always happy to serve up recommendations, including a particularly spot-on tip for salt fish fritters. I’m most grateful for the manager coaxing my girlfriend into trying neat rum for the first time with the simple addition of a little lime and sugar. No longer will I have to drink alone like a ship-wrecked urban pirate.
Cottons’ cocktails get us started, and they are sublime. Rather than kiln jars or test tubes they come in glasses. And a shrunken head. I thoroughly enjoy sucking the heady rum mixture from its cranium while its sewn up eyes attempt to stare accusingly back at me. My partner’s cocktail has a Christmas-in-the-Caribbean vibe, with sugar-dusted mint leaves and a flotsam of raspberries, its beautifully ornate decoration belying its stonkingly sour punch.
After the cocktails put us in the right ‘head’ space (forgive me) the starters keep the positive vibes alive. Salt fish fritters are just how they should be, half doughy, half crispy with a salty shredded fish mush in the middle: a pure unadulterated smack of what the body craves. The zesty salsa on the side adds a little refinement. Not that they need them, but it’s always worthwhile to pretend you’re an adult.
I sometimes think of Caribbean food as a hodgepodge of childhood dreams, vibrantly fresh ingredients and serious spices. The other starter veers heavily towards the childhood side of this holy trinity, in a very good way: crayfish and lobster mac and cheese, a kid’s idea of posh food. It’s a solid wedge of cheesy, starchy, seafood goodness that literally drips when hoisted on a fork. My partner loves it so much I’m almost denied a look in.
Despite holding promise, the mains don’t tickle me in that same special place. Let me try it on you: red snapper straight out of the jerk pit with ‘rice N peas’ and an oxtail and bean stew. It couldn’t sound more quintessentially Caribbean and delicious, right?
The oxtail curry is well cooked, the meat falls straight from the jagged little bones and melts in my mouth, but unfortunately the sauce is both too thick and cloyingly sweet. Oddly it feels professional, but as though not enough love has gone into it. I couldn’t imagine it bubbling on the stove for hours while the chef cried scotch bonnet tears into it.
Likewise what I’m looking for from anything jerked is that rich, salty, swampy, spicy hit that overwhelms anything else unlucky enough to get in its way. Instead it has that overly sweet taste that I associate more with store bought bbq sauce or sweet chilli than jerk. The fish, however, tastes fresh and was just on the right side of undercooked. ‘Rice N peas’ is spectacular, with the perfect amount of salt and coconut cream and firm black beans. It almost makes up for the disappointing jerk, but I can’t help but feel if you promise the jerk pit you’d better deliver.
One thing I cannot fault is the sheer volume of food. By the time the desserts come out I can barely lift my head to acknowledge the passion fruit soufflé and chocolate fondant that landed on the table.
The passion fruit soufflé matches the decor with its bright, cartoonish Caribbean flavours, the half-frozen tower of zesty, fresh passion fruit appearing beached on its own desert island with spiced crumbs strewn around it. Apparently it’s meant to be frozen, but considering how delicious the soft outside was by comparison my advice would be defrost it completely. Flavour doesn’t always do well at sub-zero. The chocolate fondant commits the cardinal sin of not being gooey in the middle, but was otherwise a tasty chunk of chocolate, and the rum and raisin ice cream just gives me one more reason to love rum.
Like a Shaggy gig, Cottons starts with passion and power, thrusts around a little aimlessly in the middle and then recovers with some old favourites at the end. But hey, sometimes you need the lows to appreciate the highs.
130-132 Curtain Rd
Tel: 020 7729 9723