Velma Davis ("sixty-few" years-old) was a Notting Hill institution. During carnival, she sold bakes - like fried dumplings - and jerk chicken from her trestle. But she was best known for her spicy fishcakes. She made them for Alan Yentob and Richard Branson. And, when we last met, she made them for me. "If the Queen came tomorrow," she said, "I would give her fishcakes. Burn her twice - going in, and coming out." Damn, those things were hot.
They serve fishcakes at Ashbells, a new neighbourhood restaurant in Notting Hill. But they're not as spicy as Velma's. You see Ashbells is American Southern Regional cuisine. Which means they're made with a lot less chilli.
And, from the manicured, chi-chi look of the place, a lot less love. But it did have that prerequisite for the All Saints Road - a lockable metal front-door grille. Nothing says "welcome" quite like a lockable metal front-door grille.
Or a doorman who eyes up your niece. But now I'm being churlish. The warmly lit restaurant interior take its cues from the art deco movement - particularly Radio City in New York. And I liked the relaxed feel. It felt like nowhere I've eaten before and, in a world populated by the "modern European bistro", that's a pleasant surprise. Our table had a view of the art - a painting of the singer and actor Paul Robeson - while we ran an eye over the exciting menu.
The owner, Ashbell McElveen, learned to cook while growing up in his hometown of Sumter, South Carolina. At the family farm, 10 miles out of town, he learned to grow vegetables, and eat portions that were "generous enough to satisfy a field hand". So I was expecting a mixture of plantation cooking, that is patient and bountiful, and trailer cooking, that is recycled, nasty and delicious. I was imagining big flavours. And I tucked my napkin under my chin in anticipation.
The starters of ginger sage sausage with hot chilli jam (£5.50) and Maryland crabcakes with dill mayo (£7.50) were beyond disappointing. The sausage was gristly, and reminded me of a cheap, loose meat sandwich in Iowa. There wasn't the slightest breath of ginger or sage to liven it up. The chilli jam was just a distraction. I have it on good authority that the crabcakes were a mix of light and dark crabmeat. But the cornflour used to bind and brown was the over-riding memory.
I've heard about home-style barbecues in the South. They start with the butchering of a 100lb pig. Then the pit gets dug, the logs get cut, and the fire gets covered in sheets of corrugated roofing. It may be two days in the making, but the meat ends up fall-off-the-bone tender. Goodness only knows what went wrong with our pulled pork (£12.50). It felt like a Birds Eye ready meal - a dumbed-down version of something that, once, was a cause for celebration.
The big bad flavours just didn't materialise. There was no taste of pecan wood. The mechanically chopped strips of pulled pork looked mean. And the special barbecue sauce was more a colour than a taste. I know that South Carolina is the sort of place where the secrets of your sauce are protected by state law. ("Forget about the Food and Drug Administration, we don't have to tell anyone what's in it" etc). But I doubt anyone would want this recipe. I could have created something a lot better at home.
The only dish that wasn't ridiculously underseasoned was the Charleston seafood gumbo (£14.95) - a shoal of fish with shrimp and crabmeat, served over polenta-style grits. Grits, which are ground maize kernels boiled with milk, can be incredibly weighty, but the version created by Ashbells was as light as an angel's perm. And the dish sat well with the collard greens - cabbage, served with smoked turkey and pork crackling skin.
I'm interested to learn from a website that Ashbell used to like spending his summers riding one of the two old farm mules or picking cotton. He calls Ashbells "simple food, cooked slow - but with soul". Ashbells doesn't have soul, and no course showed that more clearly than the dessert. The peaches in the fresh fruit cobbler tasted tinned. And the cobbler (which should have a buttermilk biscuit crust, to soak up the juice) was thin and unappetising.
The warm banana pudding (£5.50), served over toasted pound cake, was no better. Like the rest of the menu, it read beautifully. But something got lost in translation. The original pound cakes contained one pound each of butter, sugar, eggs and flour. The cakes were rich and dense - like bread. Apparently. But I'm sorry to report that I couldn't even find my pound cake to comment.
According to Ashbell, this is the only regional American cooking that can be considered a cuisine. Maybe he's right. And that's why he doesn't want to come right out and call it "soul food". But, truth is, it doesn't deserve the title. Ashbells promised to be an exciting combination of flavours and styles. It didn't deliver. Somebody should take the idea, and make a proper fist of it. Give me Velma, and her crab cakes, any day of the week. E
Ashbells, 29 All Saints Road, London W11 (020-7221 8585)Reuse content