A colleague of mine who is aware of my pastry inclinations has asked several times for me to make these little delightful Portuguese tarts, and I have always fobbed him off a bit, saying that I do pastry, but I don’t do Portuguese pastry – I am a Francophile, with British and American tendencies. But I got to thinking that it could be a good opportunity to put into practice the puff pastry I learned how to make quite recently in a fantastic class at the Cookery School on Little Portland Street, and well, the filling is just, y’know, custard, so I wasn’t really going to be breaking my neck, was I?
It seems so. At least with the puff pastry. Bloody hell. It seemed so straightforward when I was under Ghalid’s tutelage but in my own dinky kitchen, not so much. My first attempt had the wrong proportions of flour and butter. Retrospectively, that was a glaring school-girl error on my part. I should have backed off on the amount of butter I used (250g). I had remembered using a whole block when I was in class, so did so again. But with the flour, I had to do some quick calculations of pounds to grams as the Cookery School’s recipe is irritatingly in imperial measurements (I appreciate the irony of an American saying this), and I got the proportions wrong. It absolutely has to be equal butter and equal flour and I had only 225g of flour. Duh. Anyway, this disproportioned attempt resulted in the butter taking over the pastry and becoming a great mess; the butter sneaking out of folds in the pastry, desperate to escape this shameful bastardization of patisserie. Into the bin it went.
Of course, I didn’t have any relief butter to try my hand again, so I made my second shop run of the day, and being the pragmatist I am, along with the butter for round two, I grabbed up some pre-made puff, grudgingly. When I buy this kind of pastry I feel like I’m kind of buying into the premise behind Delia’s Cheats, which goes against the fibre of my being. Really, I feel I’m cheating by cheating.
As it turned out, I was glad to have the ready-made puff, because the second attempt was equally a bit rubbish. I leveled up the flour to equal butter. All good there. I started to roll and foolishly began to think ‘ha, got it’… until the butter beat me (again). It kept escaping the folds of the pastry (again) and I only made it to three turns before rolling it up and putting it in the fridge. I may try to make some sort of savory cheesy pastry thing with it later once I’ve recovered from this failed second attempt. Normally, I would have bagged the whole thing (I don’t like losing), but I really wanted to finish the Pasteis, so I took out the pre-made and made a mental note to speak to my therapist about it later.
The custard was next. I trolled through many recipes and was pleased to see it seemed quite straight forward. A quick Google search gave Jamie Oliver and Bill Granger’s versions the top hits, but it didn’t seem authentic enough for me (A Brit and an Aussie? Really?). I wanted to find a real recipe from the home of these little delights, Santa Maria de Belém, a small borough of Lisbon, but something authentic turned out to be quite elusive and my Portuguese is unsurprisingly rubbish. So in the end, I opted for Bill Granger’s as the foundation recipe, and tweaked it slightly by adding to the egg/cream/sugar mixture some lemon rind and a couple cinnamon sticks.
The custard was made and cooled, and into the oven the Pasteis went. 25 minutes later, they came out looking wonderful and tasting incredible, if I do say so myself: light, sweet, with a wee hint of cinnamon and citrus. The only disappointing thing to me was the pastry. Ready-made puff is not nearly as light as the homemade stuff and I think it tastes a bit heavy for the custard in this instance. Perhaps filo would be a good substitute and one to bear in mind in future.
I think I’ll leave my foray into Portuguese pastry here for now. I’m more interested in the elusive puff pastry anyway and my competitive nature means I am now desperate to master it. I’ve looked at recipes for rough puff pastry, which seem a half-way house between Jus-Rol and the real deal, but being the perfectionist I am, I doubt that’ll be enough. I may give Ms Mathiot’s version a go, followed by Julia’s. One would think, by round ten, I should get the hang of it, but just in case, keep the filo on standby.
It must be hard running your own restaurant. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to try to please a huge variety of people, all with different likes and dislikes. With all the competition around, you must essentially be at the forefront of people’s minds when their stomachs begin to rumble and cravings ensue. Surely that is some serious pressure. What must be even harder is being surrounded by lots of great places in the concentration of 500m, which has occurred in the recent regeneration of Granville Aracade, now more widely known as Brixton Village, and Market Row. There are now many local places who are in fierce but friendly competition to be the de facto choice for local punters and as such, much to many a local’s pleasure, a great mix of really wonderful and simple food, all cooked in teeny kitchens and served in mismatched dining rooms means Joe Brixton can enjoy himself relatively inexpensively, in a truly unique and quirky environment.
And now, the owners of the Tulse Hill restaurant, Brazas, have stepped into the ring and recently opened Prima Donna in Market Row. The name suggests Italian, or maybe even tapas, but I found out later it is in fact a new grilled meat restaurant. An interesting choice considering a place like Brixton Grill has established itself, quite rightly, by consistently serving pretty bomb grilled meats and fish, served with their even more atomic homemade piri piri sauce. And also, there is the better-known piri piri place that shall not be named which serves many a reveller, pre- and post-Academy gigs.
The menu is limited to a few little starters like bread and olives, and the mains are focussed on piri piri chicken and soy glazed ribs, with a couple vegetarian options for those less into the atavistic delight inspired by eating meat off the bone with their teeth. The wine list is equally limited but I enjoyed a nice Tempranillo/Syrah blend and they do have Sagres lager on tap, which seemed to go down well with some fellow diners, who seemed more interested in getting wasted than the food.
We split the courgette fritters, one of the vegetarian mains, as a starter. A large portion of eggy tortilla-like slabs appeared, covered in spinach, cherry tomatoes, feta and a balsamic dressing. They were not as light as I had hoped, but had a nice hint of mint, which heightened the courgette flavours and melded quite nicely with the rest of its accompaniments. I would have preferred the fritters to have a bit of a crunch on the outside to give them more texture against the freshness of the spinach and tomatoes. They were a touch too soggy to stand up to the dressing.
Next we had chicken and ribs for mains. I had mine piri piri style (you can have plain if you’re not into the heat) with salad and new potatoes and my other half went for ribs and chunky chips, which also came with a bit of sweet corn. The chicken had decent heat and flavour, but the breast meat was on the dry side. The legs and thighs were a little juicier than the breast, and overall the skin was crisp and nicely salty. With the chicken came a small portion of avocado salsa, which turned out to be the highlight of the dish. Light with wonderfully fresh flavours of coriander and onion and tomato really cut through the creamy avocado and it gave some much-needed moisture to the chicken.
The ribs were a disappointment. Dry, over-roasted, tough. The soy glaze seemed to have been charred to an inch of its life and what was left was a slightly soy-carbon taste, which isn’t exactly bad if you’re into that, but if they were going to grill the ribs like this, an accompanying sauce would have been welcomed.
For both dishes, the sides of new potatoes and chips were undercooked. To me, this seems more teething problems than anything else. Often the seemingly less important vegetables get forgotten in an attempt to master the main event, so I’d let them off for this, but it is something that can drain the diner of confidence in the kitchen. The sweet corn that came with the ribs was decent, but it is not in season locally, so I would have preferred something that hadn’t been flown in from some far flung country.
We finished with a slice of raspberry and blueberry amaretto cake, brought in from Maurillio which was, frankly, the nicest thing we ate during our visit. The cake had fat chunks of amaretti biscuits nestled in its lovely crumbly topping. A berry ripple gave it slightly light tangy hit; a moist and quite delightful little treat it turned out to be.
I was hoping for the best when I stepped into Prima Donna. I went in not knowing what to expect food-wise and emerged a couple hours later a little wiser and a little disappointed. Not that the food was completely terrible. It really wasn’t. But it just seemed to be really lacking that extra element which would make it more the obvious choice over its neighbouring restaurants. Perhaps it is the inattention to detail – slightly overcooked meat and slightly undercooked vegetables – that stood out to me. A little more thought and care in the kitchen would not go amiss. Perhaps it is early days yet and in time, they will have mastered both meat and vegetables, but it may have been advisable to do that prior to opening a restaurant.
Meal for two including drinks £41.85 excluding service
An edited version of this review can be found on http://www.brixtonblog.com/restaurant-review-prima-donna/5259