Everyone who has met me at least once knows I’m a woman of many obsessions, often food or entertainment-related. Chances are you’ve probably heard me babble on about steamed buns, finding pieces of my homeland of Sardinia abroad, burlesque and David Lynch’s quirky, mind-boggling and symbolic TV show Twin Peaks. So imagine my face when I heard about Courtesan, a Brixton restaurant that somehow managed to blend all of these together to please the undying fan girl in me.
I chose Courtesan as the venue for a much-needed reunion with my friend Andy, whom I hadn’t seen since leaving for Australia in April 2016. It was pretty much obvious we needed a wander around Covent Garden and then a long, chill, fancy sit-down at a gorgeous London restaurant to fill the blanks over a year apart had left in our friendship. Courtesan turned out to be the perfect venue for it, dimly lit quiet enough for us to talk, loud enough not to let others hear us. Here’s what you need to know about the place.
During a delightful dinner made of cocktails and Dim Sums, the restaurant’s owner Hammant Patel Villa shone a light on the venue’s concept, all revolving around the legendary courtesans of ancient China.
For Hammant, before even meeting or striking a deals with dynasties, tradesmen had to meet and convince courtesans, extremely beautiful and educated women they always ended up falling in love with. Everything at Courtesan reminds you of them, from the luxurious, Oriental decor to the entertainment, from the all-female wine list (soon to be followed by an all-female spirits list) to the story of its cocktails, in a vibe that combines the exoticism and rituals of ancient China with the legendary clubs of 1920s Shanghai.
Upstairs, Courtesan is all about Chinese artefacts joined by neon lights and bright red graphics, jade velvet booths and large silk lanterns… but it’s downstairs that we start to get real with my obsessions. A secret door opens to a red, geometric neon-lit Sayagata patterned staircase, a nod to David Lynch’s Black Lodge, the space where dimensions blend and souls are entrapped in his iconic Twin Peaks TV show that returned with much fanfare after 25 years, only to leave its fans more puzzled than ever before.
Courtesan’s own Black Lodge leads to the restaurant’s late night venue, an intimate space which confuses the senses with mirror installations and optical illusion art, featuring Prints of Chinese erotica hanging on the walls and red velvet cushions and pouffe seats sit alongside the cabaret style table and chairs.
Now that we got my Twin Peaks obsession out of the way, it’s time to move onto the food, a truly fusion experience mirroring the ever-changing meltin’ pot that is Brixton. The all-female chef team at Courtesan, led by dim sum chef Feng Juan Xue, honour the regal origins of dim sum while mixing it with ingredients and recipes from all around the world and focusing on pure, MSG and preservative-free ingredients.
The menu doesn’t forget the ground where the restaurant stands, or its owner’s own background. In a nod to Brixton’s Caribbean heritage, the menu also features a Jerk Chicken parcel in rice (£6.40), where the chicken is marched with steamed rice in a large lotus leaf parcel.
The son of an Italian mother, Hammant strongly suggests we should go for the Tortelli al Vapore (£5.20), filled with ricotta, parsley, egg and parmesan. Trust me, his recommendations are perfectly sound: the King Prawn and Beancurd Cheung Fun (£7.90), a cannelloni-looking steamed rice noodle sheet rolled with crunchy king prawn and crispy beancurd, turned out to be a welcome surprise. And don’t get me started on the Char Siu Buns (£ 5.70) and the Duck Puffs (£4.90) – both a staples of the best Chinese cuisine I’ve had the chance to try in Asia, reproduced skilfully by Feng Juan Xue and her team.
My favourite bits of the menu however were the dishes that experimented with the Dim Sum concept. A steamed buns addict, I couldn’t help but try the Curious Pumpkin buns (£4.90), fluffy orange-ish, Gujurati spiced delicate buns with a pumpkin filling and a touch of turmeric.
So what’s all this jazz about the World’s first true ‘female’ wine and spirit list? It’s all as it sounds: Courtesan’s team worked hard to find wines and spirits that were exclusively produced or grown by women. Among those, Courtesan is soon to feature Vermentino di Gallura, one of my favourite wines grown in the area of Sardinia where I spent the first 18 years of my life. This one will come from Vigneti Zanatta and I’m so going back for that.
Fully in character with the image of ancient Chinese courtesans, the cocktail list is exotic and often features layered cocktails that change once you get to the end of your glass. Want an example? The Courtesan (£ 8.80), made with Morello cherry, cherry liqueur, Finlandia Vodka and Prosecco, aims at representing the kiss of the courtesan, and does so flawlessly: initially sweet and innocent, ending in a dark, bitter twist with the cherry liqueur.
Named after another courtesan, the Diaochan cocktail (£ 8.80) is even sweeter, blending Martell VSOP Cognac, almond, Limoncello cream and Mozart Chocolate Cream creating a drink you won’t taste anywhere else.
Just to keep me coming back, the venue is introducing late-night ‘Courtesan Lates’ shows on Friday and Saturdays, including burlesque and cabaret acts, live jazz music, DJs, parties and West End performers. Thursday nights are dedicated to vintage jazz, while Saturdays are all about burlesque featuring regular performers such as Vicky Butterfly, Eliza DeLite, Suri Sumatra and Exotic Luna Rosa. Fridays will see female DJs playing soul and disco from all over the world.
It’s hard for me to find a place that blends all my obsessions in one venue, but Courtesan might be that place, and the fact that it’s open seven days a week from lunchtime to late at night might just be my ruin.
69-73 Atlantic Road
Brixton SW9 8PU
Pictures: Carolina Are and Kapranos PR