Dim sum is one those perfect ways of eating. Less committal than normal two- or three-course dining, it is an opportunity to try a variety of different things and lessen your chances of being disappointed. The literal meaning of dim sum in Cantonese is rather poetic – “touch the heart” – and from the position of Courtesan on Atlantic Road, this definition provides a fitting subtext to the restaurant. They seem to have a serious desire to serve great food and drinks. Despite this, our dinner did not stack up to be anything more than decent.
As I said, the motivation is there. The staff were a perfect blend of knowledgeable, attentive and easygoing. The menu was diverse and clearly adventurous in its more modern attempts on traditional dim sum; there are also many items that are wheat-free. We didn’t try any cocktails this time, but rumour has it they are talented in the mixology department. The food, however, was a strange mélange of awesome and average. We ordered a variety of steamed and fried dim sum, plus a special jerk chicken parcel, which sounded so unusual that we had to try it. All this was washed down with a standard pinot grigio and an unbelievably perfect plum-infused sake.
Deep fried squid came first, served with a fairly unremarkable chilli sauce and a storm of ground black pepper. The squid was overcooked and the batter was heavy, which exacerbated the overall chewiness. Next came the forgettable teriyaki tofu. Crunchy, breaded bricks of semi-firm tofu were served with heavy lashings of teriyaki sauce. Like all tofu, the flavour comes from the accompanying sauce, which in this case was less like teriyaki and more like a cloying plum sauce for crispy duck. Steamed char sui buns and prawn and crab dumplings followed. The char sui were light spongy buns surrounding a rich and slightly salty-sweet pork; they were really quite outstanding. The prawn and crab dumplings were served in a thin transparent parcel and, with a dip of tingly chilli oil, the salty sea tastes came alive.
The special sweet potato roll was the worst thing we tried. What seemed like pureed sweet potato was rolled up into a sponge bun like a vegetal cinnamon roll and steamed. Completely tasteless, its texture was similar to sticky mush with a confusing sandy crunch. Finally, we came to the jerk chicken parcel with rice, wrapped and steamed in a lotus leaf. Though admittedly an odd fusion of Cantonese and Brixton, the parcel really worked. Tender thigh meat was tasty and moreishly jerked and I thought I could detect a slight undercurrent of soy sauce, which tied it all together nicely. The rice soaked up all the flavour and the dish was a successful interpretation of Brixton’s famous local cuisine. We finished with rose sorbet, delicately perfumed and utterly refreshing, and black sesame balls. Filled with sesame paste, slightly sweet, and wrapped in rice flour dough, the balls were an acquired taste, but I found them delicious.
There is talent in some of Courtesan’s offerings. The dishes that were good were quite special, but the average ones were very much so. Despite such minor gastronomical dismay, I am hopeful in the case of Courtesan. The heart is clearly there but time will tell if it improves the touch.
Dinner for 2 including drinks and service £50. Photograph provided by Courtesan.
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