Ah, Ealing! Once named 'Queen of the Suburbs' by Nikolaus Pevsner, it's a thriving borough that was once most famous for its film studio. Among the notable comedies that emerged from Ealing Studios is Passport to Pimlico, a post-war jeu d'esprit that imagined what would happen if Pimlico was found to be a fiefdom of Burgundy, and independent of British rule. Something similar has happened in, of all places, Ealing Broadway Shopping Centre: a substantial piece of the Caribbean has taken up residence there.
Walk in and you're quickly overwhelmed by the atmosphere. There's a wall of old hi-fi speakers and amplifiers, murals of Bob Marley and a black diva who could be Diana Ross, signs advertising 'Take Out' and 'Happy Hour' from noon-7pm and 10pm-closing time (that's a lot of happy hours). Fairy lights strew the windows, red, blue and green lightbulbs hang over your head. The core of operations is a mock-up of a beachside bar, open on all sides and teeming with activity, as a platoon of waiting staff in red shirts and blue aprons flit to and fro. Punters sit under candy-striped awnings, or perch on tall stools.
The whole place buzzes with jollity, but doesn't feel crowded. Past the open-plan kitchen, the bathrooms are constructed of corrugated iron sheeting and painted driftwood, while upturned steel drums double as hand basins. It's all about as authentically St Lucian or Antiguan as the Ukip "Calypso", but a lot more fun. I take my hat off to the owners for the energy and detailing they've put into this artful scene-setting. It puts a smile on your face the minute you sit down. The formula has already worked a treat in English cities and towns and this is its first go in London. It already looks like a big success.
The drinks selection occupies a whole side of the LP-sized menu. It offers 24 cocktails, mostly rum-based with admixtures of banana liqueur, apricot brandy and Tia Maria. It's all about sweetness, fruit and extra alcohol. Island Iced Tea combines rum, tequila, vodka and gin with triple sec, fresh lemon and Pepsi, a blend which promises to end your evening right there. My Reggae rum punch was made with 126-proof Wray and Nephew rum, a lightning bolt of a drink tasting innocently of the strawberry liqueur swirling in its depths.
And so to the food, which is, I've often thought, the only problem with the Caribbean. The food has always been the price you pay for all that beauty. I've put in the hours trying goat curry, jerk beef, akee, salt fish, callaloo, collard greens and conch fritters, without ever hearing a murmur of approval from my digestive system. (The low point was a chicken roti I ate in Tobago, which included tiny chicken bones – something I discovered when one brittle shard pierced the roof of my mouth.)
At Turtle Bay, they don't try to gussy-up the island cooking as a fancy dining experience. Sweetcorn fritters were balls of Yorkshire-pudding dough with bits of corn, onions and spinach, in need of the hot sauce that's advertised but doesn't accompany it. Chilli-fried squid brought a tin plate of long fried squid-like something-or-other (conch? It doesn't resemble any squid I've ever seen) with yelpingly hot sauce, barely cooled by coriander mayo. Duck rolls were OK-ish shreds of canard in tamarind and soy sauce, wrapped in a burrito with a dip of sour orange chutney.
The main-course choice is between One Pots and the Jerk Pit BBQ. One Pots are served in large containers like cake tins, which disappoint by having so little actual food inside. Angie tried curry, shrimp and mango, a dismayingly vile-looking mess of marrow-fat-green sludge, pale-orange sweet potato and a dull grey mound of rice'n'peas. Somewhere within lurked some edible prawns, but it wasn't a dish you'd want to linger over.
My jerk lamb was much better, though oddly loose-textured, like an onglet steak. Where do they find lamb that doesn't have the consistency of lamb? It was marinated and glazed but not noticeably spicy, pink inside and sparked up by a green salsa of coriander, parsley and green pepper. A side order of plantain yielded five slices of fried banana, grey, tepid and sorrowful and, quite frankly, an insult at £2.35. From the puddings, we shared Caymana rum cake, served warm with rum caramel and vanilla ice-cream. It was, you know, quite nice.
I wish I could be more positive about the food. Turtle Bay is so alive and convivial, the punters predominantly young and excitable, the waiting staff so attentive ,the atmosphere so redolent of a beach party, it seems curmudgeonly to gripe about the cooking. Can it be improved, without losing its essential Caribbean-ness? Or do you, as in the islands, just put up with it because you're having fun?
16 High Street, Ealing, London W5 (020-3067 0007). Around £25 per head before drinksReuse content