Dreadlock Holiday? Turtle Bay Brixton

Nick BuglioneNick Buglione takes a Caribbean break at Turtle Bay

Is Turtle Bay a kind of gastro trompe l’oeil or voyeuristic appropriation of an exotic (food) culture, hence the 10CC cod-reggae reference? Especially in Brixton, the traditional London home of Caribbean foodie culture.

Only one way to find out whether it’s authentic homage, “Caribbean-lite” or pastiche for the blissfully uninitiated. Myself and Bugle recipe gal Emma-Louise on a sultry/sweaty summer night are on Bay-watch.

Presumably an upscale riff on a Trench Town cantina cum beach hut rum bar, Turtle Bay is all funky murals, splashes of graffiti, reds, golds and greens, calypso trimmings and crab shack furniture. Enlarged to a pretty grand scale – it’s a big room and someone has definitely gone to town. I like it, not excessively identikit, creative imagination has gone into it and the staff are all bright eyed, bushy tailed and up for it … but not in that painfully TGI Friday kind of way, thank the Lord.

The menu is a wide-ranging liberal interpretation of dishes from across islands, with a few things I suspect don’t appear on your classic Carib cook-out. It’s hardly scientific but as one did in the earlier incarnations of Soho’s Chinatown, if there were Chinese people eating, you could more or less assume the place was pretty good.

Not long after ordering a Marley Mojito (Appleton rum, green melon liqueur, mint, watermelon and ginger beer) and Reggae Rum punch (Uncle Wray overproof rum, bitters, strawberry liqueur, pomegranate, lime, orange & pineapple), Emma-Lou is chatting away to the next table where a couple of Brixton’s older caterers in residence are into their main courses.

These guys have probably been chugging down plantain, curry goat, jerk and roti since they were in nappies. Capsule review from them that knows: not sure about the plantain, pork’s good though.

Turtle Bay divides up its pretty mammoth menu into a reggae-smorgasbord of beach salads, one-pots, jerk pit BBQ as well as the ubiquitous burgers and buns and a sprinkling of not-so-authentic universals such as crispy squid and duck spring rolls (?).

Its summer and I am all about the BBQ, Emma-Lou as my in-house one-pot aficionado is also exploring. We kick off with jerk pit wings, 24-hour marinated with sour orange chutney and a coconut jerk glaze with garlic and chilli prawns in herby chilli garlic with roti. Pretty damn good all round. Good spice, energetic kick, so no one in Portland Jamaica, spiritual birthplace of jerk should be turning in their graves. Big prawns, big wings, pretty big flavours.

So on to my Bajan beef cheeks, slow simmered with a kaleidoscope of okra, potato, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, coriander and coconut. And Emma-Lou’s curry fish, Snapper fillet in a creamy coconut, ginger and scotch bonnet sauce with toasted coconut. Served with steamed rice and a new roti.

Both were pretty much a meal in themselves. I sense approval from opposite on the curry fish while my beef cheeks had that essential melty disintegration good slow cooked meat should do. Good depth of flavour and a lively up yourself kick of heat. Plantain was a trifle lifeless – I am guessing you could do better at my local True Flavours and sweet potato fries are, well, sweet potato fries.

The rotis could do with a bit of livening up also but I like the beach shack sticky fingers shtick, this is food to dive into and get dirty.

We close things down with BBQ pineapple, charred and caramelised with a rum sauce and coconut ice cream. Chill out.

I know that despite being a lifelong residents of these parts, I am still a tourist in the world of West Indian dining, Turtle Bay for me pulls it off (infinitely better than, for example, nearby Cabana does Latino).

Yes, they have made sure its accessible to the non-purist but as the neighbouring table can testify, with an occasionally inauthentic misstep along the way, Turtle Bay has got a hell of a lot of it right.

382-384 Brixton Road, SW9 7AW | turtlebay.co.uk/Brixton | 020 7737 2264 | @Turtlebayuk