Food

Chishuru, London: ‘Show it some love’ – restaurant review

theguardian– In late 2018 I was approached by a PR representing the property company that had recently bought Brixton Village and Market Row, two covered markets in the heart of my corner of south London. Both spaces, traditionally home for retail businesses serving the needs of the local community, had gone through a decade of major change. From a period of low occupancy and dwindling footfall they had become hubs for small cafés, bars and restaurants slipping in alongside what remained of those original traders. Once upon a time, you went there to stock up on great-value yams and mooli, tilapia and cow’s foot and the rest; now you could also go for a cracking bowl of tom yum soup, and a heat-blistered sourdough pizza.

The change had been brisk and with it had come justifiable concerns over untrammelled gentrification. Were the excellent flat whites at risk of pushing out the supply of things that locals, often on low incomes, actually needed? Now here was Hondo Enterprises headed up by Taylor McWilliams, who is variously described as a wealthy Texan socialite, a DJ and a property developer. Did I want to sit down with their executives for a coffee, and would I help judge a competition to find a new cooking star who would be awarded their own space within the markets?

I declined. I was wary of Hondo. As I saw it, they weren’t the owners. They were the custodians of a vital neighbourhood asset and I wanted to see how they discharged that duty before I considered getting cosy with them. I think it was the right call. Hondo was soon locked in a battle with the community which involved attempting to relocate and raise the rent on Nour Cash and Carry, an extraordinary family-run food shop selling cheap ingredients to the many BAME families that have long lived in Brixton. After a sustained community campaign, Hondo changed tack. During the row, one of the chefs who had signed on to judge that original cooking competition felt the need to apologise for having got involved with the company at all.

Well he can relax. Because the winner, Nigerian-born Adejoké “Joké” Bakare, has just opened her restaurant in Market Row, and it’s one of the good things to come out of the current ownership. And because I wasn’t a judge, hurrah, I can write about it. Chishuru started out as a supper club, focusing on what Bakare felt were the lesser-known dishes from West Africa. Now Chishuru has become a small restaurant with peach-coloured walls, and an open kitchen where she cooks with the help of just one assistant, amid the occasional billow of flame and the shout of “service”.

The menu is short and full of heat and vigour and zest, in some cases with the latter, literally so. Cassava is here shredded and deep fried to produce an intricate, knotty bird’s nest of a fritter with boundless crunch and crack. Two of them are perched on a salsa of grated coconut and lime, waiting to be scooped into its nooks and crannies. It’s food you must play with. In another starter, meaty chicken gizzards are roasted with tiny cubes of plantain, all of it under a boisterous chilli and citrus sauce, giving heft to a humble part of the bird that, as the French might say, only an idiot would leave behind.

Both starters are a fiver. For £6 there’s grilled king prawns, wallowing in a seafood broth that’s heavy with cracked black pepper and nutmeg. I tear at the tails, drop the heads into the liquor, then return to them for spice-boosted suckage. Our napkins become properly stained and sit on the table beside us like badges awarded by the Brownies in recognition of effort made.

Goat has been stewed on the bone, in a deep, lightly oily sauce of green peppers and onions. It’s no looker. After all that stewing there’s more than a grey-brown tinge to the bowl. But we all know the best foods are not necessarily the prettiest. The meat is just waiting to leave home. A whole sea bass is glazed with a caramelised onion sauce and served with more of the same on the side, the pearly flesh slipping away to reveal a perfect film-fun skeleton.

What makes all this fly is the trio of sides for a tenner: the brightly dressed green salad, the toasty slices of caramelised plantain and best of all the atassi rice: a huge bowl of “come home and let me look after you”. The rust-red, pillow-soft rice and beans are topped with a sweet-sour escabeche of slow-cooked onion and peppers. I pair the rice with the goat as expected, but really, I just want the bowl in front of me so I can bow my head in supplication and disappear into its comforting, non-judgmental depths. Thank you, Joké for taking care of me. At the start I have a cocktail of rum, lime and blitzed plantain that turns out to be a shade of duodenal brown. Ignore the colour and enjoy its sweet, boozy kick. At the end there is peanut ice-cream, with lemony meringue. In between there is almost a handful of serviceable wines. As in there are just the four of them.

The entire front-of-house team – a lovely chap in plaid shirt and mask – works the room with vigour, like he has a huge bustling brasserie at his feet. He has good reason to be cheerful. For all the distancing of the tables, which spread out into the arcade beyond the door, tonight Chishuru is proper bustling with Brixton locals, happy to be out with each other.

In normal times I rarely review on my own doorstep, despite the many terrific possibilities that are stacked up around me. I just don’t relish one local restaurateur getting all pouty at me for reviewing a competitor rather than them. But these are not normal times. I ate at Chishuru just as the dizzying and confused Covid-19 tier system had been introduced. Since then this lovely new restaurant has been forced to close by the current lockdown. Sooner rather than later, I hope, Joké’ Bakare’s Chishuru will reopen and, when it does, like all our most beloved local restaurants, it will need the support of its neighbours. It’s a portion of the community on a plate, and one that has all too often been overlooked, including by me. It deserves to be shown some serious love.

News bites

Beder, a charity raising awareness around mental health issues and suicide prevention, has just published a cookbook. From Beder’s Kitchen, named after Beder Mirjan who took his own life aged 18 in 2017, contains contributions from a number of chefs including Atul Kochhar, Yotam Ottolenghi and Romy Gill who have provided both recipes and reflections on how food can help us look after our mental health (beder.org.uk).

Rick Stein’s restaurants have relaunched their Stein at Home range. The boxes, which require some preparation at home, start at £40 for the hake menu for two which includes mackerel paté to start, followed by grilled hake piperade with serrano ham and minted potatoes and a sticky toffee pudding to finish. It tops out at £85 for the Cornish lobster box for two. Delivery is nationwide and takes place on a range of days through November (shop.rickstein.com).

At the other end of the country Simon Rogan of L’Enclume in Cumbria has launched a range of delivery boxes which now includes a five-course Christmas lunch targeted at 25 December itself. It starts with his truffle pudding and goes through a roasted onion broth and cured trout before the main event: Norfolk black turkey with a rye, bacon and sage and onion stuffing and a whole bunch of other things besides. Non-meat options are available. It costs £95 a head. Visit simonroganathome.co.uk.

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