Polly Nash experiences flavours, colours, textures, and a bang on the head at Negril
Strolling to Negril on a summer’s evening, it feels apt to be eating at a restaurant named after a Jamaican town known for its long sandy beaches and turquoise waters.
Luckily the flying ants out en masse today haven’t seemed to find Negril’s leafy garden away from the traffic on Brixton Hill, an oasis of reggae and Caribbean spices.
With the doors wide open, the indoor and outdoor areas merge seamlessly, creating an airy setting without feeling empty with just four tables of diners.
The menu, printed on A4 paper and decorated with the odd water stain only adds to the no-fuss, rustic feel of the place.
Being someone who suffers with acute indecision when ordering at restaurants, I’m relieved to see a relatively modest selection of drinks to choose from.
Perhaps the only thing to pull me from my Caribbean dream is the price list – you’d be hard pressed to find a Red Stripe in Jamaica for £4.50 – but even still it’s hard to resist ordering a bottle of the country’s favourite lager.
In the interest of being adventurous I quiz the waiter about their four rum-based cocktails, they are brimming with knowledge about the ingredients and flavours of each drink.
We opt for one dark and stormy and one Caribbean breeze, and for someone who usually avoids such sugary concoctions I feel no envy towards the man on the table next to us drinking a Red Stripe.
To fellow cocktail sceptics, don’t be put off by the startlingly blue Caribbean breeze, whose refreshing pineapple flavour will do exactly what it says on the tin and transport you to the coast of Jamaica.
Two strong cocktails and one precariously rickety table create the sense of being at sea – luckily we have an abundance of food on its way to settle our stomachs.
Our lives are made easy by the fact that the namesake Negril Platter seems to include practically every starter on the menu, from salt fish fritters to jerk chicken and plantains, plus vegetable sides and myriad meat and fish options.
The owner of Negril, Latanya Christie, writes on its website that she wants her restaurant, a fixture on Brixton Hill for more than a decade, to educate customers about Jamaican food and serve organic, nourishing meals, which is evident in the menu of hearty Jamaican classics including ackee and saltfish, and braised oxtail.
Every plate on the Negril platter brings different flavours, colours and textures to the mix, providing various pairing opportunities.
Match the sweet and starchy plantains with the dark leafy green sautéed callaloo.
Or tuck into the smoky grilled sea bass with the sour pickled peppers, and douse the chicken – which is moist and tender – in its deep brown jerk gravy.
In other cuisines a sweet touch is sometimes added to meals as a garnish or flavour enhancer, but in the Caribbean plantains and sweet potatoes are staple ingredients and take centre stage at Negril.
If you can handle a bit of spice, you will love the chilli sauce made with scotch bonnets, which is strong enough to pack a punch without overpowering the chilli’s distinctive tropical, almost fruity taste.
If you do overestimate your spice tolerance, have no fear, a serving of creamy coleslaw will sooth the heat while also adding some crunchy textural variety to the meal.
On another occasion I would order one of Negril’s ital dishes, a Rastafarian style of cooking and eating, which, in its purest form, is a strict vegan diet without any added salt or preservatives.
At Negril the ital options include a wrap made with plantains and vegetables, an ital stew, and an ital salad featuring jerk jackfruit. With a host of vegetarian and gluten-free options on offer, this is an establishment that caters for one and all.
Unable to finish our sharing platter for two, my initial disappointment at seeing none of Negril’s famous homemade cakes on the menu is quelled slightly.
The current staffing crisis in the hospitality sector might have something to do with the absence of any puddings on the menu, but after such a satisfying main course I’m not sure I could fit them in anyway.
I must warn all customers who are six feet tall to mind their heads on the way to the bathrooms. After receiving a nasty bump on mine at the end of our meal, be wary of anything I’ve written here and go and visit Negril to decide for yourselves!
132 Brixton Hill, SW2 1RS | negrilonline.co.uk | 020 8674 8798