Last time I didn’t like a restaurant, someone got so cross they threatened to report me to the Independent Press Standards Organisation for the sheer gall of having an opinion, which, in this case, happened to be that their restaurant was rubbish.
So in the interests of not making someone else cross, I shouldn’t write about Shuang Shuang, a new hot pot restaurant in Chinatown, where a Yo Sushi!-style conveyor belt tries to mask the fact that you end up paying £25 for a below-par bowl of noodle soup.
It’s my own fault. El Pye was desperate to avoid Shuang Shuang, describing it as “the kind of place you would have taken a date when you were a student,” making sure she emphasised the “you”s. I said it would be fun, and that’s how we found ourselves staring forlornly at scallops that cost £4 each as they trundled past like sad ducks on a shooting range at the Fairground of Mild Disappointment.
The premise is thus: first you pick a flavour of stock, which costs at least £7 before you’ve even thought about adding anything to it. I went for an insipid Mongolian lamb tonic; El Pye chose the tastier “black bird” chicken version. You bring this to the boil in a metal cauldron that sits on a built-in hotplate at your table. Then you grab fillings of meat, fish and vegetables from the colour-coded plates as they fly past on the conveyor belt, each coming with instructions on how long it needs to be cooked. This is fine when you’re dealing with one or two ingredients but less so when you’re trying to remember which of your five bits of meat went in first. In the end, it doesn’t really matter: the instructions dictate that you aggressively boil everything until it’s rubbery and tasteless, presumably in the name of ‘elf and safety, which I suspect really has gone mad this time.
While incinerating sea bass seemed like a shame, I was glad to boil the pork balls, which had all the gristly appeal of a testicular tumour.
Of course, when so many choices are whizzing past, your greediness surpasses your frugality and you end up spending more than you would in an actual restaurant where a trained professional is being paid to do the cooking for you. But I shouldn’t tell you any of this, and I won’t. As of now.
What I’ll tell you about instead is a perfectly lovely little Jamaican cafe called Three Little Birds, which recently opened on Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane. It’s owned by a former Apprentice contestant, April Jackson, but don’t let that put you off – the former Miss Jamaica Universe (2008) is an utterly charming restaurateur.
The dining room is long and thin, with a rum bar at the front and seating squeezed along the side and towards the rear. Inexplicably, there’s also a shop selling Jamaican-themed T-shirts and baseball caps, which looks like an airport duty free concession, and is in fact described as such on the Three Little Birds website. I’m not sure who combines shopping with dining but it reminded me of the time my father insisted our local curry house sell him one of the branded clocks they had hanging on the wall.
The food is an Anglicised take on Jamaican fare, with the brunch menu featuring Caribbean twists on porridge (made with cornmeal) and bacon sarnies (served with pepper jelly). I ordered from the a la carte: “stamp & go” cod fritters with sweet chilli were nice enough to excuse the wobbly tube of bamboo they were served in, while charred slices of marinaded pork belly with spicy mayo were excellent.
After Jackson had explained what it was, I ordered callaloo stew. I can now tell you it’s a Jamaican dish that originated in west Africa, the main ingredient of which is a leaf that’s similar to spinach. It tastes kind of like spinach curry without the garam masala or cumin. It’s served with three small pucks of bammy, which is usually made by baking pressed, shredded cassava, a tuberous root not unlike a yam, although these ones appeared to have been fried. It’s nice; uncomplicated and easy on the palate. The jerk burger, meanwhile, was delicious but loses points for not being as heavy on the jerk and spice as I’d have liked.
That’s the way things are at Three Little Birds, though: the food isn’t as fiery or in your face as, say, Rudie’s, the recently-opened Jamaican restaurant in Dalston (nor, if I were being honest, is it quite as good). But the food isn’t the big selling-point here, it’s the atmosphere and the rum cocktails and the great service and the weird little shop selling Bob Marley merch. There aren’t many places I’d rather spend an afternoon: if only all restaurants were this nice I wouldn’t get half as much hate mail.
64 Shaftesbury Ave, W1D 6LU
Tel: 020 7734 5416
FOOD ★☆☆☆☆ | VALUE ★☆☆☆☆ | ATMOSPHERE ★☆☆☆☆
Cost for two with NO booze or dessert: £50
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THREE LITTLE BIRDS
412 Coldharbour Ln, SW9 8LF
Tel: 020 7274 6655
FOOD ★★★☆☆ | VALUE ★★★★☆ | ATMOSPHERE ★★★★★
Cost for two (three courses plus cocktails): £65