Sugar Cane London, 517 Wandsworth Road, London SW8 4PA (020 7498 8758). Starters £4-£6, mains £8.50-£10, platters for two £30, desserts £5.50, wines from £20
Sugarcane London is a tidy little Caribbean cafe on Wandsworth Road that serves, among other things, really good jerk chicken. The skin is crispy and blackened and has a sweet, aromatic heat from an enthusiastic assault by a heavy seasoning blend with the wonder that is allspice. This is a restaurant review, so we obviously care about those things; food matters and it will have its moment.
But for now, there’s another story to tell: that of the jerk chicken manager and all the other deep, enveloping dishes that come out of the tiny open kitchen. I first heard about Tarell Mcintosh, self-proclaimed Chef Tee, from his neighbors. A few weeks ago, the restaurant was robbed. The shutters were ransacked, the equipment and the stock stolen, the cash box emptied. Sugarcane London, a neighbor told me, had been a labor of love for Chef Tee, who had precious few resources when he started and had nothing left. The local community, neighbors and customers provided the money he needed to get the place back on its feet. We talk fervently about the importance of neighborhood restaurants. We talk about their importance to communities. But it suggested a higher level type of love: a higher level type of importance.
With reason. As Chef Tee explained in the press release he put out in 2020 when the restaurant opened (and which, to my shame, I completely missed), he grew up caring and wanting do something for the other outgoing. He’s now 27, but has accumulated a lot in his short life: loads of degrees and time as a teacher, as well as jobs in restaurants such as Negril and Blues Kitchen in Brixton. He enjoyed working and reworking Jamaican recipes at home, but by the time the pandemic hit he had decided to retrain as a midwife.
Then one morning, on a lockdown walk, he came across what used to be a corner store, but was now empty. He convinced the landlord to give him the lease. He bought some used kitchen equipment that would pretty much do the job. He painted the signage himself because he didn’t have the money for someone else to do it, and nailed together the frame of a beach hut in the store. There are wooden struts painted red and blue and colorful corrugated iron sheets acting as sloping roofs. There are wooden tables and chairs. Within weeks, he had enough money to hire four retirees. As he wrote, “I’m a helper, a changer, and that’s what Sugarcane London is. I try to use my business as a vessel for others. Accordingly, the words “become part of our story” are painted in his own hand on the front.
I thought I’d do it, not just reporting the grim news of the burglary, or the best crowdfunder fable, but eating there. Because that story starts to waver if the food doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It really is. It’s Chef Tee’s sweet journey around the islands. From Trinidad comes a soft, flaky roti with a deep, sweet, sticky spicy sauce for dipping and, as always, if no one’s watching, a bit of light sipping. Although, even if they were looking, no one would really care. It’s not that kind of place. Sip.
As well as half jerk chicken for £9 we have the ribs, which have been braised until ready to leave the bone they called home, suitably dipped in a soft glaze and hot. Ask for more towels. We have the goat curry, apparently “cooked in the Dutch pot for four hours like my grandma taught me”. His nan taught him well. There’s a fiery power in the sauce, which makes my scalp sweat, and plenty of bones to nibble on. So would the 24-hour slow-braised oxtail, full of fresh spinach leaves that wilt gently in the heat, except the meat has almost fallen off to make the deepest of stews. I suck bones anyway. There’s jerk rice and a big bowl of kale and callaloo, to make sure you’ve eaten your greens. They’re all comfort food, made by someone who knows a little about finding a safe place and now wants to give you one too.
We try their cocktails: a £6.50 Dark ‘n’ Stormy, and something candy cane colored with pink gin and pink Ting for Valentine’s Day. Both flaunt a generous approach to metrics. Be warned, if a little light inebriation is desired, you might miss the cocktail list and head straight for dessert, which includes a section called “Alcohol Soaked Cakes.” The ineffably light and crumbly chocolate cake is drizzled with almond liqueur. To the side is a jar of their own custard, containing a deep load of dark rum. Or there’s the bread and butter pudding with more dark rum. Chef Tee loves rum. At the bottom of the menu it says: “No service is added to your bill, please tip so I can buy my staff’s rum.” Tonight, he says, is one of the first times the kitchen has taken care of service without him while he works at the tables. “They did a terrific job.” They earned both their rum and their tips.
Chef Tee is a gentle but charismatic figure, who somehow manages the important task of showing love to his regulars while taking out the dishes and serving the delivery drivers who show up at the gate. We fall to talk; there’s no room in a small, intimate room like this for pretentiousness. He knows why I’m here and I point out how well fed we were. Chief Tee admits that from the very dark moment immediately following the burglary, business has been good; the community support has been amazing. I tell him what he did was just as amazing.
He gently nods his head and, without a second thought, simply says: “I am a care leaver from a disadvantaged background. I’m black and gay, one of the country’s youngest restaurateurs who opened his restaurant on his own during the pandemic with just £3,000. I should be a statistic. Instead, I broke down the narrative and the barriers. Despite everything against me, I am still standing. In such a small space, everyone can hear our conversation. Spontaneously, his customers applaud him. Great too.
Creameries in Chorlton, Greater Manchester has a new identity. Founding chef Mary-Ellen McTague handed the restaurant over to chef Mike Thomas, who relaunched it as a southern European restaurant called Campagna at the Creameries. The menu will include clams clams with chickpeas, cuttlefish stew with braised fennel, pappardelle with beef shank ragout and hazelnut pie with sabayon cream. On Sunday there will be a three course menu for £30. Visit thecreameries.co.uk.
Industry body UKHospitality has warned that the sector will need to raise prices over the coming year to cope with rising food and energy costs and the end of the reduced VAT rate introduced during the pandemic. The organization surveyed more than 340 companies representing 8,200 outlets. Nearly 50% of respondents said they expect menu price increases of more than 10% in 2022, with 15% anticipating an increase of more than 20%.
Flor, the restaurant and then bakery opened in London’s Borough Market by Jason Lowe and John Ogier of Lyle’s in 2019, has ceased operations. Flor was backed by the JKS catering group which maintains the site. They announced that it will now become a second outpost of the Iranian restaurant focused on Berenjak kebab. AT berenjaklondon.com.