On a Saturday lunchtime, as I make my way from tube station to The Courtesan restaurant, Brixton is buzzing. I love walking down the long curve of Atlantic Road, peering at all the fish mongers, butchers and grocers, particularly fascinated by the number of items on sale that I don’t recognise and can’t identify. Only a short walk past the food shops, market and ever-vibrant Brixton Village, I find what I’m looking for.
Named for the Lady of the Court, the restaurant offers “modern dim sum” alongside selected teas, wines and cocktails.
Owner Hammant Patel Villa, a professional industrial designer with a passion for oriental food, was captivated by the stories and traditions of the original Chinese courtesan (and is at pains to dismiss the crasser modern meaning that the word has taken on). Originally, courtiers and courtesans were simply those who were regularly in attendance at the royal court. Many were nobles, but there were also members of the clergy, soldiers, business men and agents and even clerks and secretaries. Political lobbyists are perhaps the closest modern-day equivalent.
For Hammant, the Lady Courtesan is a figure of mystery and elegance, power and knowledge, perhaps also a little romance and sadness. Her portrait hangs at one end of the main room and the decor of the restaurant pays homage; he points to a patterned wallpaper – he chose it to represent the tears of the courtesan, he explains. There is much dark wood, some a little worn with the patina of age, and the space is hung with elegant light fittings. The Birdcage bar is appropriately themed, with shelving units designed to mimic the real cages displayed above. Downstairs is the “Boudoir”, a dark and intimate space with its own bar, used for special events and available to book.
I am really impressed by the drinks menu. For wine drinkers, nearly all the wines listed can be ordered by the glass or the bottle. There are three “desert wine” [sic] listings, though one is a plum wine and one a very dry sherry, so this section needs more attention. The beer list is short but more interesting than many, with a regular Brew, IPA and Chocolate Porter from Chapel Down Winery’s Curious beer brand and Imperial Lager and Cerne Dark Lager by Krusovice in the Czech Republic. There are champagnes and proseccos and a long list of inventive mixers for them. The usual comprehensive list of spirits, liqueurs, etc. is available. There’s even a sake. Soft drinks include a better range of juices than normal, though none are specified as fresh. The choice of teas is pleasing, ranging from Jasmine, Chamomile and White Peony & Rosebuds to Pu Erh, Lapsang Souchong and Iron Goddess of Mercy (£4.90), which I enjoy with my meal.
The cocktail list is particularly appealing; instead of following the same clichéd path of bitters this and vermouth that it offers more unusual creations such as China Ghost (£7.90, Wyborowa Vodka, Rose Liqueur, Lychee, Rose Peony) and Wang Zhaojun (£8.80, Violet Liqueur, Jasmine Tea, Beefeater 24 Gin, Wyborowa Vodka). Hammant says he likes to think of these as flavours the Courtesan might like, but that are also “ethereal, life and death in the same glass”. Both are utterly delightful!
I’m pleased both by the inclusion of tea in some of the cocktails and the pleasant change of there being some sweeter combinations for those of us that aren’t so keen on sour or bitter. There are also a few non-alcoholic cocktails, based mainly on the tea menu.
Once drinks have been ordered, the dim sum starts to arrive.
Char Siu Puff (£3.90) are decent in texture but the pork is a little under-flavoured.
Pan Fried Pork Dumplings (£4.20) are excellent. The filling is juicy and very delicious, wrapped in a thin skin which is soft in places, crispy in others.
Trio of Steamed Dumplings (£5.80) include one each of Prawn & Crab Dumpling, Wasabi King Prawn Dumpling and Scallop & Shrimp Dumpling. The wasabi nearly blows my head off, it’s incredibly potent, but once my eyes stop streaming, I enjoy the set.
Cheung Fun Tri (£5.20) comes with one each of Roast Pork, Prawn with Beancurd and Vegetables With Beancurd. Surprisingly, the vegetarian one is my favourite, with a perfect balance of tastes and textures.
Char Siu Buns (£4.20) have an unusual style of dough, but are enjoyable nonetheless.
I ask for an order of Taro Croquettes (£3.90), one of my dim sum stalwarts and a good judge of a kitchen, I think. They are tasty, but the inner casing is far thicker than usual, leaving less room inside for the pork filling.
Peanut Celery Salad (£3.50) is served warm. I hate celery, but do try the peanuts and love how they are soft rather than crunchy. Others enjoy the dish as a whole.
Stormy Seaweed (£3.90) is doused in a fiery dressing, a touch too fierce for me, but simple and a good match with the seaweed.
Described as “spare pork ribs, first braised, then fried with Szechuan batter”, the Szechuan Style Ribs (£6.50) are fabulous. I’m not sure I’ve had spare ribs that have been breaded and fried before, but it works superbly well. Again, these are fairly hot on the chilli front, as I expected from the name.
Hot Frogs Legs (£7.20) are also utterly delicious, served hot out of the fryer. But beware – Hammant instructed his chef that he wanted the frogs to kick hard, so the chilli quotient is not for the faint hearted.
I’ve always loved Black Sesame Balls (£4.50) but order them only rarely; they are so rich I can’t eat more than one and few of my friends like them. So it is a pleasure to have them here. The soft glutinous coat around a gooey black filling is spot on.
At the end comes Rose Peony Chocolate Truffles (£4.70). The ganache is made from cream infused with the white peony and rosebud tea. They are rich and dark and perfect to have with coffee, though the tea flavour hasn’t permeated much, that I can detect.
I am pleasantly surprised by the range and quality of the dim sum, having wondered ahead of my visit whether a design-lead space with a strong drinks focus would really do justice to the food. But I needn’t have worried, the dim sum is, in the main part, very good. Prices are reasonable too, especially for the cocktails list which is great value.
My visit also reminds me how easy it is to get down to Brixton, and a visit to those fish mongers, butchers and grocers is on the cards soon.
Kavey Eats was a guest of The Courtesan.