Tatale, a new pan-African restaurant, arrives on the London dining scene at a time when it cannot help but make competitors feel slightly drab. Recent flash new openings in the capital have taken a familiar shape: posh pub revamps serving salt marsh lamb at almost £35 a pop, pricey patisserie by famous international chefs and 100-plus-cover, all-day brasseries that look alluring in the PR photos, but offer a menu so drab, you’ll be snoring into your chicken paillard salad like the dormouse at the Mad Hatter’s tea party.
Meanwhile, on the sidelines and making plans, was Akwasi Brenya-Mensa and his vision for Tatale, an upgrade of his popular supper club to a permanent home in the all-new Africa Centre in Southwark. His menus are broadly west African, but each dish is heavily redolent of a childhood in south London, travels in Israel and South Africa, and family trips to Ghana. So expect crisp, hot, panko-wrapped ackee croquettes, zinging with citrus and a scotch bonnet kick, as well as the silkiest, black-eyed bean hummus with red palm oil and a dukkah base note influenced by time spent in Tel Aviv, and served with crunchy plantain chips. This is very good, life-changing hummus. Brenya-Mensa also celebrates the casual joys of the Ghanaian roadside “chop bar” with a simple bowl of his mother’s “red red” black-eyed bean stew served with a whole, baked, edible flower-strewn plantain perched in the centre of the bowl. It’s a west African recipe with a modern twist, and delivered with a staunch, sentimental accuracy.
Brenya-Mensa, who trained under James Cochran at 12:51, is patently not the first or only chef in south-east of England to offer plantain, ackee or chichinga chicken. However, vast, expensively hewn, pan-African new openings with magnificent art installations, bespoke furnishings and a separate cocktail bar are certainly slim on the ground. The walls are deep indigo, and the chairs and sofas vividly patterned in traditional Ghanian styles by Golden Editions, which specialises in kente cloth made in the Volta region. Tola Ojuolape Studio, meanwhile, has come up with a landscape of clay, terracotta and woven items to create a relaxed, communal space where visitors to the Africa Centre can come and go or take a table by the open kitchen. Brenya-Mensa has cited the arrival of restaurants such as the much-loved Chuku’s in Tottenham as giving him impetus, but Tatale is a different and much bigger beast altogether. Neither is it very much like the boldly experimental Ikoyi in St James or the highly likable Akoko in Fitzrovia, both of which offer ornate tasting menus and far heftier bills. Tatale is elegant, but defiantly homespun.
The menu is unabashedly personal, with each dish coming with its own anecdote on the menu. Brenya-Mensa tells of working with a dance school in Tel Aviv, and of his family’s lively parties on a jaunt to Cape Town. There’s a nod towards what his mother makes him each Tuesday after football, namely that “red red” stew with the plantain, which on the day I visited was the only large plate on offer. It is rich and tomato-based, and laden with fermented locust bean and gari. I regret not being able to finish the bowl, because I went rather heavy on the yellow rice, or geelrys, a Malay-influenced, sunset-coloured bowl of sticky jasmine rice with fried shallots and lots of sultanas. Great rice is my downfall every time, and this sweet, compelling stuff is much more than your average side. The absolute star of the show, though, was the omo tuo in a delicious puddle of nkatenkwan. This bowl of rich, beautifully fiery groundnut soup with a dainty slick of vibrant green parsley oil sneaks up on you, becoming more fantastic each time you break off some of the mashed white rice dumpling from the centre, soak it in the nutty sauce and deliver it to your mouth.
These dishes are painstakingly precise and are almost all vegan. Yes, there’s the much-talked-about chichinga buttermilk chicken, served as chicken wings with a side of dark red, fishy shito, but if you ignore that, this is a quietly plant-based menu, and definitely one for meat-avoiders to have up their sleeve. We went for Sunday lunch and ate our way through the entire list, leaving no room for the chin chin cheesecake, which was such a rookie mistake: I should probably hand back my badge. I saw it going to other tables, though – crunchy, broken pieces of glistening fried dough perched on lightly whipped cream cheese, apple and lime zest – so I have no choice but to slink back alone one day.
Brenya-Mensa has created one of London’s most interesting and delicious new openings, and it’s no wonder he’s been called an “African futurist”. My future, I hope, involves much more nkatenkwan.
August 12, 2022 at 04:53PM Grace Dent