The small chain’s original branch in Camden boasts the largest collection of rum in the UK with over 300 different varieties. Previously housed in a shipping container at the Boxpark pop-up mall, their Shoreditch outstation has now moved to a permanent location on Curtain Road, just seven minutes’ walk from Old Street station. With its carnival-style decor, laid back vibe and authentic home-cooked food, it’s the perfect way to grab a slice of St. Lucia or a bowlful of Barbados in the only slightly less exotic environs of EC2.
I paid a visit early on a rainy Monday evening and, as I walked in and took stock of the colourful wall-length jungle mural and fishing nets hanging from the ceiling, was surprised to find the place already filling up and a pleasant hubbub emanating from the vibrant mix of diners. Many of them, I suspected, were regulars who could easily tell a conch from a callaloo with their eyes shut. My own knowledge of Caribbean cuisine is somewhat less commanding (I can barely distinguish a pepperpot from a papaya) so I was pleased to be expertly guided through the menu by the helpful waiter (handily, there is also a ‘Glossary’ available so you can learn about the food for yourself). I was even more glad when he told me it was happy hour (5-7pm) and suggested we start with one of Cottons’ famously potent cocktails. Having been warned that the ‘Killer Doppi’ (£9.50) was guaranteed to turn me into a zombie (or ‘doppi’ in Jamaican), there was simply no other choice for me or my companion. The mix of four different rums, apricot liqueur and blue curaçao mixed with orange, pineapple and lime juice came in quaint gargoyle-like mugs and certainly had a kick, even if it didn’t quite transform us into the slabbering undead.
credit: Cottons Restaurant and Rum Shack
With our journey into blissful inebriation underway, we were ready for our starters. My pork ribs (£6) were meaty and flavourful and arrived with plantain chips and a large gravy boat of thick, sweet and tangy jerk sauce. My friend’s order of ebony wings (£6) didn’t disappoint either and came served with chargrilled pineapple and a generous dollop of the same delicious black treacle. The spicy sauce left us thirsty so we quenched ourselves with a couple of Trinidadian Carib beers (£4).
For our mains, we were tempted by some of the wholesome sounding meat dishes, such as curried mutton or oxtail and bean stew. We saw these being delivered to a nearby table and heard the ensuing nom-nom’ing and appreciative comments coming from our neighbours. Instead, though, we both decided on the fish platter to share (£32 for 2). Again, satisfaction was delivered in the form of fresh, succulent pieces of red snapper and bream, seabass fillet, octopus and squid stew plus a fat juicy king prawn sitting on a plate of brown rice and plantain with a big jug of jerk sauce on the side. My friend, the smart and self-controlled one, he left the sauce alone and spent the next fifteen minutes ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the various delightful and subtly different tastes. Me, I just picked up the jerk sauce and, like a helpless addict unable to resist that sweet black nectar, proceeded to pour it over absolutely everything, masking most of the fine flavours of the dish. What an idiot. Maybe that killer cocktail had turned me into a zombie, after all. Lesson learned for next time: easy on the sauce.
credit: Cottons Restaurant and Rum Shack
There are only four items on the dessert menu and unfortunately, on this occasion, three of them weren’t available — something to do with a faulty fridge, apparently. Bit of a shame as the Cottons Cake Trilogy looked appealing: rum, carrot and ginger cake with rum dulce de leche. Rumtastic! We were left with the last man standing — a rich, indulgent chocolate fondant cake with rum ’n’ raisin ice cream (£5). Again with the rum, but I wasn’t complaining, and at least this time I managed to resist the temptation to pour jerk sauce all over it.
Cottons makes a great excuse to get your tastebuds ready for the Notting Hill carnival (they also have a branch there too at 157-159 Notting Hill Gate — the price point is a little higher but still modest for W11). Like anywhere reliably good, it gets pretty busy but the tables are well spaced and it never feels cramped. There’s sometimes a bit of a wait for food to arrive but then this is the Caribbean and those rum cocktails sure are a great way to pass the time. I definitely need to return to Cottons, maybe on a Friday or Saturday when a DJ spins reggae and other tunes until 2am (the kitchen stays open until 1am) and even more of a party atmosphere prevails. I just need to learn to control myself around that oh so sweet black jerk sauce!
Cottons Restaurant & Rum Shack, Shoreditch
132 Curtain Road, EC2A 3AR
0207 729 9723