When I first came to London, I lived about a mile from where I live now, just off Brixton Hill. The market was quite ungentrified in those far-off, mist-shrouded days – Franco was not yet missing from Franco Manca – and to be honest I mostly viewed it as a sensorium; a place to be visited for instruction and delight, rather than a practical resource.
One thing I do remember is that many of the West African stallholders sold giant land snails, alive alive-oh, which they kept in cardboard boxes full of cabbage leaves. Once in a while one of these would escape, making its ponderous way across the market’s concrete floor until the stallholder wearily picked it up and restored it to captivity.
When I moved back to Brixton after a few years on the steppes of north London, the snails were gone: import issues or EU regulations, I supposed, though I fondly imagined that they’d taken advantage of some suitably drawn-out diversion and mounted a mass breakout.
I had mixed feelings when I saw that grilled land snails featured on the menu at Pitanga: I felt I ought to order them, but (a) I’ve had lumache di mare in Rome, a broadly similar creature not dissimilarly cooked, in a spicy tomato sauce, and they had not only the texture but also, dismayingly, the flavour of a fricasseed inner tube; and (b) they cost £28. But under the current Covid regime you have to order online via a QR code, and while the menu that duly pops up on your phone is not significantly truncated, it did appear resolutely gastropod-free.
The restaurant sits halfway up the North End Road, which runs from Fulham Broadway to Olympia in west London. It’s an enchanting space, bright and bohemian, with lots of plants everywhere, and books and objets perched, a little haphazardly, on bright yellow shelves.
Tomatoes, chillies and plantains are piled up in bowls here and there, which I guess eases the pressure of space on a serious-looking but by no means enormous open kitchen, but also cheers the soul. We sat in a pretty little courtyard out the back, struggling to scan our QR codes in the gloaming.
We had what might be considered an entry-level Nigerian feast, though it worked for us: beef flank suya, a canonical soupy stew called egusi and “native rice”, a kind of jollof billed on the menu as “Nigerian biryani” (we asked for both soup and rice with goat, because we both really like goat, though other options – including vegan ones – are available); braised honey beans, plantain chips and a ball of eba, a comforting, pillowy mash made from cassava; two aqualung-sized Star beers; and a bottle of what I think (it was getting dark), was Oyster Bay.
Suya is coated in a mixture of ground peanuts and spices before grilling, so you don’t get as much charring of flesh and fat as you would on souvlaki or arrosticini or whatever, but the juices of the meat are partly absorbed in the spicy rub. Here the meat was fragrant rather than fiery.
Egusi is made from ground melon seeds, among other things; it’s thick and hearty, almost fluffy in texture, gilded with oil, deriving massive umami from salt fish and smoked crayfish, with big, delicious chunks of sweet, dark goat meat lurking within.
The rice had a similar surf-and-turf energy: I liked the textural similarity between flaky smoked haddock and long-cooked goat, which fell off the bone in rich, slightly leathery chunks. The honey beans were cooked down into a rich braise.
Pitanga’s owner, Nky Iweka, whose cooking has inspired a dedicated following since she opened in 2018, has evidently set out her stall not just for the cognoscenti, but also for diners who are relatively new to West African food. The restaurant’s tag-line is “Nigerian with a twist”, which in practice means a certain amount of hand-holding on the menu, European dishes alongside African ones (you can order a “Full English” or a “Full African” breakfast), slates for plates, etc.
Some might feel this comes at a cost in terms of authenticity, whatever we mean by that pompous word. I first had suya at Eko – a bar/restaurant in east London which promises to offer the best Nigerian food in London – along with a few beers (Star again; you will probably also know that African Guinness, labelled “foreign extra stout”, is stronger and toastier-tasting than its European sibling – it’s a great drink, pretty widely available, and it’s fantastic in stews). Compared with Pitanga’s, which was meltingly tender, Eko’s suya was chewier, as Cole Porter might have said; it was also spicier and more complex – one definition of authenticity, maybe. But if Ms Iweka’s more evangelical approach is working, which I certainly hope it is, then, well, why not?
A pithier conclusion would be to say that Pitanga (the name denotes a pretty tropical fruit, fluted like a tiny red pumpkin) is a great neighbourhood restaurant, a warmly welcoming place that’s full of personality and charm, and even a kind of wit.
I would love to go back and try “Grandma Doreen’s slow-cooked goat curry” – their goat game is, as you may have gathered, strong – not to mention the other soupy stews, or stewy soups, on the menu: bitter leaf, okra with brisket, pepper soup. And the mixed suya and jollof plate, or rather slate, looks like excellent value if you’ve got £18 to spare and you’re properly, Desperate Dan-level hungry.