My friend is off to the Caribbean later this summer, and I’ve been singing the praises of the St Lucian mud baths under the Pitons, the salt fish and rice combos served at beachfront stalls in Barbados, as well as the guava filled rum punch that is in plentiful supply wherever you go. The Caribbean way of life is relaxed, colourful and above all, social. Gathering together with friends to spend some time sharing good food and conversation over potent cocktails. I feel like there’s bit of a zeitgeist moment going on right now too – Drake and Rihanna’s Patois infused dancehall inspired music, high colour statement fashions, not to mention the enduring obsession with coconuts.
Just a stone’s throw from Notting Hill Gate station, Cottons Restaurant & Rhum Shack really jumps out at you on the main drag. The shopfront has a distinctly non-London glow about it – almost as if it has not yet been sullied by the daily onslaught of city fumes and high stress levels. Giving off the air of an oasis of calm with a sky blue exterior, and paintwork featuring bright tropical plants and bonsai trees and terracotta tiles. The words ‘salon de rhum’ also caught my attention, being one of those drinks that is associated with good times by default.
The original Cottons first opened in Camden over 30 years’ ago with Jamaican-born head chef Nikki McLeod, and is still open today under restaurant manager Frederic Fawkes, who previously worked at Paradise in Kensal Green and in Saint Martin in the Caribbean. It also opened a street food arm at the Shoreditch Boxpark in 2013. Cottons Notting Hill aims to offer ‘a more refined experience’ than the other sites, while still keeping authentic Caribbean flavours.
The interior décor really nails the venue’s colours to the mast: a large golden mirror, an antique chandelier positioned under a large skylight, filament bulbs suspended from the ceiling, and floor-to-ceiling painted murals throughout.
Offering the largest selection of Rum in the UK, around 300 varieties are listed on the menu, which is sorted by country (or island). I didn’t trust myself to pick between all of the options, so followed the guidance of the informed staff and opted for a couple of options from the cocktail menu, which is to die for. I started with a Floating Sampan (£9) billed as ‘the Chinese invasion’, which combines peach infused Havana 3, Lychee liqueur, muddled lime & cucumber with mango ice cubes.
My companion opted for Wild Tiki (£9.50 – pictured below) which captures ‘Hula hoops, sunshine and wild nights’ through a glorious mixture of spiced rum, Maraschino liqueur, Aperol, fresh passion fruit puree, pineapple, kafir and lemongrass.
Main menu classics include jerk pork ribs, oxtail and bean stew, ackee and saltfish, barbecue glazed pork belly with rum and molasses, Trinidadian steamed red mullet in Chadon beni garlic butter, with sides such as ‘rice n peas’ and fried plantain. We started with Barbecue glazed pork belly (£7) which was just melt in the mouth gorgeous. A rum based glaze added depth and complexity to the sweetness of the molasses, and the accompanying pickled vegetables struck the perfect balance.
Also in the starter menu was a Mezze platter (£7) which included aubergine dip, large succulent creole shrimps and fried spiced chickpea dough balls known as ‘pholourie’. The Scallop Ceviche (£8 – pictured below right) is given a Caribbean twist with the addition of green mango and scotch bonnet, and a generous portion is served in a delicious pool of tigers milk (lime juice, sliced onion, salt and pepper) which you just want to slurp from the bowl.
We were eating light, so opted for a vegetarian main of broad bean, okra and aubergine cassoulet (£18), served on a bed of pepper & onion cous cous, alongside a punchy melon chutney. Escovitch of fish (£7.50) is a Jamaican classic of seasoned, fried and marinated fish (cod in this instance) with a peppery vinegar-based dressing made colourful with julienned bell peppers, carrots, coriander and onions.
However light one is dining, there is always room for desert. We weren’t disappointed with the Banana Napoleon (£8) which saw the structural balancing act of filo pastry sheets, filled with banana cream, topped with ‘coconut snow’ and served alongside tropical fruit sorbet. Also ridiculously delicious was the Yoghurt Parfait With sorrel jelly (£7) which featured another technically impressive feat yogurt enrobed in white chocolate, passion fruit coulis. The only mis-step on the menu were the accompanying green tea crepes, which were slightly too cloying and flavourless for my tastes. I had to admit that if that was as bad as things got, we’re on to a winner.
Alongside lunch and dinner, brunch is served at the weekends, featuring inspired dishes such as avocado benedict, ‘Caribbean breakfast’, and quinoa and smoked beetroot salad. Drinks-wise, themed smoothies with names such as Tobago, Kingston, and Blue Mountain are all made with fresh fruit from jars displayed in the restaurant. This is certainly a place I will come back to whenever I need a blast of sunshine, and to soak up some of the warm atmosphere. Recreating a slice of the Caribbean in London could be seen as a bit of a challenge, but this turns the experience into something truly transcendent, and the team behind the restaurant are no beginners. This is a worthy flagship for an established brand which offers an authentic taste of the Caribbean, which somehow manages to sit nicely alongside the refined simplicity of West London.
Cottons Notting Hill
157-159 Notting Hill Gate
London W11 3LF
T: 0207 243 0090