RESTAURANT A soul star on the horizon
Saturday 19 August 1995
Most large cities in the United States have at least one restaurant that serves "soul food" - sometimes called "Southern cooking" or in other areas (Kansas, Texas) "barbecue" - to a mixed clientele of black and white customers. Its signature dishes include fried chicken, barbecued spare ribs and "smothered" pork chops, deep-fried okra and sweet potato pie, and it has always been cooked best by black Americans. Although similar, it is not the same cuisine that became trendy in the mid-Eighties under the label "Cajun", not the "blackened" fish and steaks, the rice-based, spiced stews called gumbos and jambalayas popularised by some leading white New Orleans chefs. Indeed, while Cajun cooking was quickly adopted by white middle-class Americans, the popularity of true soul food remains largely restricted to the black American community.
In London, there are a couple of so-called Cajun or Creole restaurants, although many have closed in recent years, having failed to sustain a loyal following with their pallid versions of a spicy regional cuisine that has great difficulty surviving away from its bayou roots in southern Louisiana. There is, however, a substantial Afro-Caribbean community in Britain and there have been a number of Caribbean restaurants founded here over the years (London has Smokey Joe's and the Brixtonian). If this country has true soul food, then it must follow that it be Afro- Caribbean in character.
The chef at Fats, Sam Antoine, is from the island of St Lucia. He worked as a chef for the Cunard Line for more than ten years and brings to his Cajun and Creole dishes a wonderful combination of traditional knowledge and innovative skills. I believe Sam Antoine is a potential new star on the horizon of the British culinary world; don't be surprised if, in 18 months' time, he's got his own television programme.
"A lot of restaurants open and are fine for three months," he says. "Then they start to slip away. I am very fussy about quality. When I go to bed, I am thinking about cooking. When I wake up, I am still thinking about cooking. I want the food we serve here to be the same at all times." To this end, the small kitchen at Fats is absolutely stuffed full of fledgling chefs in immaculate white uniforms and hats who are being trained by Mr Antoine to produce the same high-quality cooking "so that I can take a day off once in a while. At the moment, I can't leave my restaurant."
The night we ate at Fats was one of the hottest August evenings in London's history. As a result, none of the delicious and intriguing-sounding soups were on offer: pumpkin, cow heel, callaloo and vegetable. "When the weather changes, I'm going to cook some wonderful soup for people," Mr Antoine promises.
We went straight to the main courses, eaten with numerous side dishes. I had lamb Debullion which was "smothered lamb chops" in a rich dark Creole sauce studded with spinach, carrots, celery, onions, garlic, rosemary and other mystery spices. The lamb itself - Antoine uses only Halal meat and no pork products in his kitchen - was tender rib chops that had been marinated, then broiled, then casseroled so that they were packed with flavour, not at all greasy, and the meat fell off the bone. Moreover, I had about eight chops in my dish! My wife ordered chicken St Lucia which turned out to be a huge platter of boneless chicken in a thick curry-like sauce composed of ginger, garlic, thyme, cinnamon and coriander, laced with coconut milk and rum. It wasn't Indian or Thai or Malaysian, but it was worthy of all three cuisines at their very best.
To accompany these dishes we ordered a plain roti: a large sheet of unleavened bread which Antoine fills with the spicy split-pea powder called dahl puri. He traces this bread to Trinidad and Guyana, and also serves it wrapped around fillings (beef, mutton, seafood, chicken), much like a Caribbean burrito. The yam side dish was glutinous and heavy, almost like tofu, and a good counter-balance for spicy sauces. I had an order of vegetable dumplings; dense white boiled dough torpedoes covered in a tasty melange of mushrooms, tomato and other vegetables. Finally, we had a dish of steamed garden greens, emerald in colour, finely chopped, cooked just enough to avoid a soupy consistency, at once refreshing and very healthy. In American soul food, these would have been flavoured with bits of ham hock. I missed that smokiness in their flavour, but there are enough fireworks in the rest of Mr Antoine's cooking to stop it being a major loss.
If there is failure at Fats, it comes with the puddings. Mr Antoine acknowledges this and says he intends to replace the current selection of rather lacklustre bought-in pastries and pecan pie with his own desserts. At the moment, the one original sweet you can order is a corn meal ponnie - a steamed tube of corn meal drenched in honey. It should satisfy anyone with a craving for nursery puddings, although it is a bit heavy for the summer months.
Fats is not yet licensed to serve alcohol, but there is an off-licence next door and you can bring your own without corkage. A fascinating range of fruit punches is served, many using milk and exotic soursop juice. The service during our visit was awfully pretty and sweet, our young waitress could not have been more helpful if she had had five year's experience in a Swiss hotel. As it was, I think she was just starting her career. Finally, there was the cost. Dinner for two, not including drinks or service, came to pounds 23. That is more than it would have cost us to take Fats' food away, but it still sent a shiver right through my soul
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