It has a pair of outdoor tables too
#invite and #ad are such innocuously deceptive hashtags. They mean little to most people, if they notice them at all. In the world of restaurant reviewing though, or at least in the world of the Before Times, they mean that the reviewer got a free meal – either from the restaurant directly or from the restaurant’s public relations (PR) firm – in exchange for a review.
To the surprise of some, I rarely accept such freebies. I’ve only ever accepted around half a dozen, most recently in 2013, and I always declare them – upfront and in language that is as easily understood as possible. I go through all that for numerous reasons – and not just because I’m a moralising prig in an excessively starched collar and squeakily shiny pumps.
In a crowded field of persistent restaurant botherers, impartiality and the perception of impartiality is one of the few things I have to set me apart. That impartiality would inevitably be compromised, subconsciously or otherwise, by the special treatment that restaurants inevitably shower on freebie-takers. If that wouldn’t nobble it, then having to look at restauranteurs in the eye while they tell me their life stories while PR officers hover in the background probably would.
But it’s not just a question of honest dealing. Even with the help of my dining companions, I’m still a lone operator and can only cover a finite number of restaurants in any given time period. If I accept one restaurant’s freebie, then a restaurant that can’t afford the luxury of a giveaway goes uncovered. To blindly or willingly fall into that trap doesn’t just lead to blander, monotonously uniform reviewing. It also helps reinforce a restaurant system that favours those who have privilege, power and money over those who do not.
Chishuru doesn’t (as far as I know) have the privileged option of handing out freebies in exchange for reviews. Even if that wasn’t the case, Chishuru is almost giving their take on Nigerian food away anyway with its £30 set menu of four courses alongside an a la carte option.
Of course, keen pricing doesn’t automatically equate to quality – not unless you’re into placebos. Chishuru doesn’t have placebos on its menu, but it does have an ekuru neatly partnered with a chilli and pumpkin pestou. The cubes of ekuru, possibly made from peas, were reminiscent of polenta, but lighter and airier with a tangy edge. It was the perfect textural partner for the pestou’s stridently creamy and bittersweet flavours.
A salad of shaved cassava couldn’t live up to that firecracker opening. A crisp and crunchy affair reminiscent of flaked coconut with a charred lemon on the side for squirting zestiness at one’s discretion. While not bad, it was an oddly tame and simple affair compared to the more layered and strident dishes here.
Charred cauliflower was a firm and lightly crunchy conveyor for the spiced peanut sauce. While thin, its strident nutty moreishness was anything but.
Both Crispy Rendang and I agreed that the goat ayamase was a sumptuous affair. Strands and chunks of tender meat, along with the occasional seam of gelatinous connective tissue, pulled away from the bone with the flick of a fork or the gentle tug of pursed lips. It was made even better by the spicy heat of the sauce, its initial tingly warmth gradually building into a peppery feverishness.
In pairing a caramelised baobab mousse with a peanut ice cream, it might seem as if the kitchen is overdoing it with the white, runny blobs. The two tasted as if they were made for each other though, the creamy moreish nuttiness of one oozing and melding into the other. Their combined charms were largely obscured by the wafers of peanut brittle though, their distinctive flavour and strident crunch trampling all beneath them. I found it better to take the brittle first and then follow it up with the mousse-ice cream combo.
‘Fried milk’ was no oxymoron, but a precisely engineered marvel. The crisp and tightly-crumbed crust covered gauzy yet chewy skins – somewhat akin to mochi but far thinner – which in turn cradled a delicately milky reduction (if a reduction of milk is even possible). It was somewhat comparable to quark or clotted cream in terms of lightness, but even that analogy doesn’t quite do it justice. It was complimented surprisingly well by the herby bittersweetness of the hibiscus. If the baobab mousse with peanut ice cream was a dessert struggling to take shape, then the fried milk had emerged from the kitchen not only fully-formed but in beautiful, bountiful bloom.
Going back for seconds
The ekuru was just as good as it had been the first time around.
The cassava croquettes were more like latkes, the thin sheafs of vegetable pleated together into a crunchy, almost brittle discus. Although enjoyable enough when daubed with the citrus-infused coconut sauce, they were somewhat lacking when taken without it and they were a tad too oily in places. As a result, I ended up with a hankering for the usual potato-based latkes.
While the wee chicken sweetbreads weren’t as earthy or squidgy as the best lamb or bovine sweetbreads, they did have the benefit of a bristlingly hot chilli sauce which puckered the lips and straightened the spine.
Although billed as a kohlrabi salad, the heap of shaved veg that arrived was much the same as the disappointing cassava salad that I had the first time around.
Another dish making a repeat appearance was the goat ayamase. As I was dining with chilli dodger Kangaroo Face on this occasion, we had to opt for the mild version of the goat. While Kangaroo Face was still overwhelmed by its ‘hair-raising’ heat, I found it to be far less flavoursome. While the texture of the goat remained on form, I ultimately ended up pining for the hotter version that had bewitched me so the first time around.
You can barely move in London with all the steamed sea bass swimming around, begging to be eaten. What set Chishuru’s sea bass apart was not the so-so orangue-hued sauce already daubed on the fish, but the pale, deceptively wispy condiment to the side. It packed an unexpectedly citrusy, peppery punch along with a light astringency. All of this made it the perfect accompaniment to a fish known more for its meaty flakes than its flavour.
Chishuru’s bavette steak could’ve done with more time underneath a tenderising hammer as it was too chewy in places. While disappointing, this bavette was by no means a complete loss. Its tantalisingly smoky aroma, along with the lively pep of burnt chilli served on the side and a sensibly salted crust, were easily enough to have Kangaroo Face and I fighting over each and every slice.
Deeply savoury beans and cinnamon-like hints studded a generously-sized helping of soft, small-grained rice topped with neatly sweated peppers. It’s almost good enough to be devoured by itself and not just as a protein or veg accessory.
Baobab mousse was served without either ice cream or peanut brittle this time around, allowing its delicate sweetness and savoury starchiness to take centre stage.
Despite a few wobbles here and there, Chishuru’s cooking is already remarkably well-formed and mature for a restaurant that – at the time of writing – is so new. Its layering of boldly distinctive flavours with carefully chosen and crafted textures in a few choice dishes isn’t just a notable achievement in its own right. It also makes for a gentle yet addictive initiation into the wider world of Nigerian cooking, something it achieves more adeptly than the somewhat similar but far more overhyped Chuku’s.
Such a richly rewarding and nourishing experience is worth more than any freebie.
Address: 9 Market Row, Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, London SW9 8LB
Phone: 0796 000 2150
Opening Hours: Wednesday-Friday 18.00-22.00; Saturday noon-15.30 and 18.00-22.00. Closed Sunday-Tuesday.
Reservations? probably a good idea.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £50 approx. (£35-40 approx. if you order the set menu)