The Rouge-Painted Cheek of South London
An all-female team of chefs have created a sumptuous menu at South London Courtesan, celebrating a plethora of ancient, Chinese paramours
Review by Izzy Ashton
Brixton is arguably one of the most dynamic foodie spots in London. What used to be a rundown arcade, Brixton Village Market now houses an incredibly variety of cuisines and delicacies, as well as the meat, fish and veg stalls that are long standing institutions.
When you walk out of Brixton station, you are assaulted by music, excitement and a general hum in the air. There is always something happening that’ll draw a crowd, from the street performers to the ticket touts and members of the general public, compelled to address the masses.
But, as you head down Electric Avenue and turn onto Atlantic Road, the hubbub fades away. This is a road littered with lovely little restaurants and bars but, even having lived around this area for the last year, isn’t somewhere I’ve been before.
Atlantic Road is also home to the recently refurbished Courtesan, a dim sum restaurant with an underground cocktail bar and after-hours entertainment space. The re-launch has encompassed everything from the dark red interiors to the extensive menu and all-female produced drinks list. Designed to look like a 1920s Shanghai club, the panelled exterior reveals nothing of the opulent interior hiding within.
Traditional Chinese apparel lines the walls, from straw umbrellas to framed prints, figurines and bright red chopsticks standing to attention in a glass jar. Inspired by the legendary courtesans of Ancient China, the restaurant itself resembles a cross between a British pub, an old ladies sitting room and the opulence that deep shades of red velvet brings to mind.
The food and drinks menus are a celebration of female talent; while the cocktails are named after courtesans who were so beautiful they either eclipsed the sun or stopped the fish from swimming, so the stories go.
Dim sum literally means to touch the heart; it’s an attitude, not a dish, and something that the team at Courtesan have endeavoured to capture through the experience they offer. After help was given in decoding the drinks menu, we settled on cocktails that were worryingly far from my usual drink of choice. Thankfully, they were delicious. The Raspberry Hanky Panky tasted like fruit squash that had been naughtily upgraded while the Courtier with Lapsang Souchong tea was dry and smoky, a mysterious cousin of an Old Fashioned.
Be warned, the menu is extensive, and somewhat difficult to fully appreciate. Seek the careful guidance of the staff who pointed us in the direction of several dishes with the advice to try something that sounds like nothing you’ve ever tasted before.
Advice duly noted, our meal began with black hart dumplings, fresh salmon and prawns encased in a black squid ink open envelope. The filling itself was perfectly salty but the exterior rather muted the overall flavour. The king prawn dim sum with bean curd, although way too big, was snaffled up by my guest who, being more adept at chopsticks than myself, maneuvered the parcels deftly.
Deep fried sea bass lightly smothered in wasabi provided a crunchy side note to the dumplings, while the Warrior Cage was an art form on a plate, housing spiced beef fillet slices within an edible, crunchy noodle cage.
The Bao buns, however, totally stole the evening, pillowy light, cloud-like rolls filled with delectable substances such as Gujarati spiced pumpkin in one and Wagyu beef in the other. The pumpkin was so good, it was the sort of thing you almost let go cold because you wanted to savour every last morsel. The sweet, sticky brioche-esq bun provided the perfect accompaniment to the beef, which was paired with Japanese mayo and crisp lettuce. This was some of the softest, most delicate beef I’ve ever eaten and rendered my guest and I momentarily silent while we indulged.
A few more cocktails ordered – a fresh Elderflower Collins and a Xi Shi, that mixed honey with prosecco and curacao to great effect – we settled back into our seats to while away the rest of the evening in contented fullness.
Courtesan was a delicious immersion into the world of 1920s Chinese courtesans, where beauty reigned supreme and the dim sum flowed immeasurably. While several of the dishes didn’t quite hit the spot, when the chefs mixed traditional with slightly peculiar, they created morsels that are really worth talking about.
With a basement bar open on Friday and Saturdays, complete with mirrored ceiling and low slung, velvet sofas, you could quite easily get lost in a world that is so far from the hustle and bustle of Brixton. And where would be the harm in that?