When I was about ten years old, my older sister (then in her mid 20s) decided that she was off to adventure and left South Africa on an extended working holiday. These were the early 1980s before migration became as hot a potato as it is now and work visas were easier to come by. As a radiographer, she easily found work abroad and I remember this as a period when I started receiving cool gifts from London – my London Monopoly set always provided a degree of social cachet among my school friends (their Monopoly boards merely mentioned boring old Eloff Street, Durban Station and Jan Smuts Ave, while mine boasted the exotic Old Kent Road, Paddington Station and Park Lane!). But she eventually decided to try somewhere more exotic – and as it turned out, her Afrikaans language skills made her eminently employable as a radiographer in Curacao, an island in the Caribbean which at that time (together with Bonaire and Aruba amongst others) formed part of the Dutch Antilles. At the time I would have been very hard pressed to pinpoint the Caribbean, let alone Curacao, on a map. But what I remember clearly was receiving letters and postcards from my sister, festooned with colourful stamps and telling exotic tales of her adventures on this mysterious tropical island.
Antilia was the name given to one of a number of mysterious islands on the medieval sea charts, when European explorers had not yet ventured far enough to figure out what land masses lay exactly where. It was reputed during the 15th-century age of exploration to lie somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, far to the west of the Portugal and was often depicted on maps as a large rectangular island, echoing the shape and size of Portugal itself. It was only after 1492, when the north Atlantic Ocean began to be routinely sailed and became more accurately mapped, that depictions of Antillia gradually disappeared. But the phantom island lives on in that it lent its name to a newly-mapped archipelago of islands in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico: the Antilles. Today the name encompasses the Cayman Islands, Cuba, the Dominican republic and Haiti), Jamaica, the Leeward Islands (including the Virgin Islands, Antigua, St Kitts & Nevis, Anguilla, Monserrat and Guadalupe), and the Windward islands (including Dominica, Grenada, Martinique, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines).
So when chef patron Michael Hanbury announced that he was opening Antillean, a pan-Caribbean fine dining restaurant near Waterloo, he was spoilt for choice in terms of the breadth of diverse culinary influences that he could draw upon. People tend to think of Caribbean cooking in very basic terms – jerk chicken and rice & peas – but in fact it is a fascinating melting pot of foreign culinary influences on the cooking Carib cooking: French, African, Spanish, Indian, Dutch and Chinese. Michael is no stranger to fusion food, having previously been executive chef at Asia de Cuba, one of the first “Chino-Latino” fusion food restaurants in London, and his Caribbean-inspired dishes draw together many of the ingredients and elements that shaped Caribbean food.
The restaurant occupies the beautiful space that was formerly occupied by Baltic for 20 years. Much as I lament Baltic’s closure, it is great to see new life breathed into the space. The front entrance is a rather unassuming small terraced shopfront on Blackfriars Road, with the only clue to the history within being given away by the stone carved caryatids above the rather grand wooden doors. Built in 1780 it was originally a foundry, making church and religious artefacts with the workshop in the large barn area at the back and a small showroom at the front (currently the bar area). This is where the cocktail action happens and where you can feast your eyes on a portion of Antillean’s impressive rum collection (more on this later). But walk through the bar area and like a Dr Who tardis, the space opens up to reveal the old workshop area beyond – an airy, light space boasting 40-foot wooden trussed ceilings and a skylight running most of the length of the room. Between 1997 and 2000, Baltic owner Jan Woroniecki bought the Grade II listed building and got planning permission to restore the structure (which had fallen into disuse and ended up as a storage yard for old Citroen cars!) lovingly to its former glory. The combination of the original features such as the trusses and skylight with clean modern lines and a muted colour palette is very successful and I am pleased to see that Antillean has not made any major changes there.
The menu at Antillean aims to marry the flavours, spices and colours of Caribbean food with the fine-dining tradition of French cuisine with a series of Caribbean-inpired dishes. Alongside the food menu is an impressive drinks menu boasting an astonishing 100+ different types of rum (we counted rums from 23 different countries on the menu when we visited!) and a varied cocktail menu. This ranges from the classics to signature cocktails, with a definite leaning towards rum-based cocktails! Some of the rum cocktails also acknowledge Michael Hanbury’s love of cricket, bearing names like Whispering Death (nickname of legendary Jamaican cricketer Michael Holding). Over the festive season when we visited there was also a special selection of Christmas cocktails available, from which we sampled two. My dining companion requested a mocktail and was presented with the impressive long red drink on the left in the first picture below – she definitely did not feel hard done by! I ordered the Sabina Park Punch (£13.50), named after the cricket stadium in Jamaica and comprising Havana Club 7 year old; Hennessy VSOP; Bodegas Oloroso Cream; and ginger wine. This was sweeter and less gingery than I was expecting, but would suit you perfectly if you were after a sweeter but not fruity cocktail. The two cocktails that I sampled from the Christmas cocktail menu were the Christmas Punch (£12.50) – Havana Club 7 year old, Havana Club spiced, cherry syrup and ginger ale; and the Ginger All the Way (£12.50) – Havana Club 7 year old, Amaretto, honey syrup, ginger ale and cinnamon. The second was reassuringly gingery but if you are not a fan of the marzipan flavour of Amaretto, this might not be for you. The Christmas Punch was definitely my favourite though – the perfect balance of sweet, spicy and alcoholic. We also got to chat to the very knowledgeable, urbane and immaculately turned out bar manager Alfred who has the enviable job of adding to the restaurant’s rum library!
There are various menus on offer, other than the standard a la carte menu. Antillean offers a prix fixe lunch or pre-theatre menu (3 courses for £27.50 or 2 for £22.50, including a cocktail); a 6 course signature tasting menu (£65 including a glass of Champagne, and the option of adding rum pairings at an additional cost); and on Saturdays, a 5 course brunch menu (vegetarian menu available) with live music and a cocktail included or optional £39 bottomless drinks package. The a la carte menu is divided into sections for raw, small plates and large plates. From the raw section we chose the mojito cured grouper with mint lime and rum (£12.00); and from the small plates, the grilled octopus with mango, cucumber, mint & Scotch bonnet emulsion (£14.00); and the oxtail patties with Bajan hot sauce (£7.00). The grouper was beautifully plated and the fish wonderfully fresh, but we thought that it lacked some oomph in terms of the promised mojito cure. The lime needed to be balanced by some sweetness and there was very little hint of either rum or mint. The oxtail patties were excellent with a buttery, flaky pastry and a generous meaty filling of slow-cooked oxtail. The Bajan hot sauce delivered a punchy burst of chilli flavour like the afterburners of an F16 fighter jet – delicious and not for the faint-hearted! But the absolute standout here was the grilled octopus. The meaty chunks were unbelievably tender and moist yet with a fantastic smoky char. the accompanying Scotch bonnet chilli emulsion packed a creamy and gentle heat that never overpowered the octopus, and the mango added a delicious sweetness – a perfectly balanced dish, beautifully presented.
For our main course we shared three dishes off the a la carte menu: flying fish with cou-cou, sofrito and mojo (£22.00); crab claw curry and soft shell crab with okra, rice & peas (£22.00); and rum-marinated ribeye steak with boniato mash and salsa verde (£26.00). Flying fish stew with cou-cou (cornmeal) is a traditional staple in Barbados and here at Antillean, chef Henbury’s slick take on it has become something of a signature dish. The plating is sculpturally beautiful – the pectoral fins (the “wings” of the fish) have been deep fried to crispiness and accompany the crisp-skinned fillets on the plate alongside a sofrito of sauteed red pepper, red onion and tomato. The cou-cou (a polenta-like mix of cornmeal and okra) is served here as a crispy fried slab rather than a soft mash consistency and it is absolutely delicious – definitely a worthy signature dish. The crab claw curry with deep-fried soft-shell crab is another show-stopper of a dish: sweet, yielding crab claw flesh in a creamy curry sauce and the textural contrast of the featherlight and crispy soft shell crab – crustcean perfection. The rum-marinated rib-eye steak was yet another triumph. The meat was perfectly medium rare and pink, yet properly rested with no evidence of blood on the plate. The rum marinade was very much in evidence in the flavour of the meat and the herby salsa verde provided an excellent, slightly sharp counterpoint. The buttery boniato (sweet potato) mash added a deliciously creamy note and reminded me that I need to make sweet potato mash at home more often! If you have a healthy appetite, plantain fries (listed as maduros), yuca fries and callaloo (amongst others) are also available as side dishes on the menu.
It’s not often that I look at a dessert menu and think I could actually eat everything on there. Usually there is at least one duff note or some ingredient I don’t like – but as my eye ran down the Antillean dessert menu, my only thought was “I want ALL of these”! So it is a good thing then that they offer a chef’s selection dessert platter (£15.00) that allows you to sample a little of everything! The only dessert that is not included in the platter is the intriguing plantain tarte tatin (£6.00) so we ordered that as a separate dish. I really love the idea of a plantain tarte tatin – such a Caribbean ingredient used in such a traditional French dessert, and it certainly looked the picture of golden caramelised perfection. However, I found the plantain to be tough and chewy rather than meltingly soft – not sure if this was a function of the ripeness of the plantains (which, I imagine, must be a constant problem in the UK, rather like the elusive perfectly ripe avocado!) or that the fruit needed longer, slower cooking before the pastry lid was added. But sadly it meant that the dessert was good rather than great for me. The platter, on the other hand, was a tour de force. Starting on the left we have rum babas with a spiced rum syrup – these were terrifically light and spongy, perfectly absorbing the spiced rum syrup that was poured over at the table as they served it. Next is Guinness punch ice-cream with Havana Club spiced rum. Guinness punch is a popular Jamaican drink – rather like an alcoholic milkshake – consisting of Guinness stout, milk, sweetened condensed milk, vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon.. and it is said to be excellent for the libido! The Antillean take on Guinness punch takes these flavours and turns them into a rich ice-cream, redolent with the flavour of Guinness, served as a scoop drifting in a lake of spiced rum. It’s not too sweet, deliciously spicy, and has a kick like a cocktail. What’s not to like? The third dish along was the island chocolate torte with passion fruit and mango – a simple dish that really showed off the pastry chef’s skills. The ganache filling was rich with a deep cocoa flavour, and the tart shell was golden perfection – crisp to the very centre and definitely no soggy bottom. The tart passion fruit and mango made a wonderful tart counterpoint to the sweetness of the chocolate. And on the far right was a carrot cake topped with pineapple shavings. We both adored this – a far lighter cake than we were expecting with a good dollop of cream cheese frosting (and why aren’t all carrot cakes served with pineapple?). I would say that the platter is definitely the dessert to go for here and there is enough or two people (even three at a push) to share.
Overall I was very impressed with our meal at Antillean. As I said, the space is very appealing (the banquettes set in alcoves around the perimeter of the room are great and provide a degree of intimacy even in such a large space) and the staff were faultlessly charming and well versed in the menu. The plating was precise and attractive and I liked the inventive Antillean twist that was given to traditional dishes and flavours from around the Caribbean, while still retaining respect for their heritage. Some of the dishes truly were show-stopping (the octopus, the rum-marinated rib-eye and the Guinness punch ice-cream spring to mind) and it is good to see that that a number of dishes on the menu are marked as vegetarian or plant-based. Antillean has only been open for a few months so I really do feel for them with all the uncertainty caused by the Covid Omicron variant – but for now, restaurants in England remain open and I can think of few nicer large, airy spaces to enjoy a meal and let your tastebuds take a trip to the Caribbean – no PCR test required!
Cost per head: approx. £60 for three courses and a cocktail
Nearest Tube/Train station: Southwark/Waterloo
74 Blackfriars Rd
Tel: +44 (0) 20 3011 4449
E-mail: [email protected]
Opening hours: Monday to Friday: 9:00 – 23:00; Saturday: 10:00 – 23:00; Sunday: 12:00 – 18:00
If you enjoyed this post, why not have a look at my other London restaurant reviews.
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of Antillean but received no further remuneration to write this post. I was not expected to write a positive review – all views are my own and I retain full editorial control.
Make sure you never miss a recipe or a review – sign up to receive a free e-mail alert whenever I publish a new post!