What makes a ‘good’ restaurant? Is it only about the food or is it something more, perhaps atmosphere and décor, or that it is a place to see and be seen? We are so spoilt for choice in London, but to make it in this industry, is a restaurant forced to hold that balanced trinity of ambiance, quality and attractiveness to be considered actually ‘good’? I’m not so sure anymore. Exposed brickwork and stripped back aluminium ceilings is so 2009, and really, who has the time to keep up with the latest darling of the foodie scene? What does continue to matter, however, is quality – whether one is eating a kimchi burger off a street van or on the 40th floor of Heron Tower.
And yet, we are all guilty of making assumptions over places without trying them. Judging them from the outside, we pass by and assume we have safely curated our own dining experience and perhaps avoided a disastrous one at that. But we are missing out. It is often places that seem to promise little that end up surprising us the most.
Little Ochi is one such place, living in a small line of low-key shopfronts along Dulwich Road. Its signage states plainly that it is a Jamaican seafood restaurant; a simple interior gives nothing away. We went on a sunny and subsequently quiet mid-week evening – my friend and I, and a table of four the only diners. The menu is equally uncomplicated and under the slightly sceptical eye of our hostess, we ordered a prawn meal and steamed fish. She sent me towards the back of the restaurant where a refrigerator full of fresh seafood sat next to the kitchen. The guys back there know their stuff and recommended the sea bass: fewer bones and a meatier flesh. Works for me.
The wait for our food passed quickly as we chatted to each other and the other diners. When it finally arrived, the portions were vast, steaming and fragrant. The large prawns were served whole and bathed in a rich coconut-y sauce. Labour intensive but entirely worth it, the sweetness of the meat was nicely complemented with allspice and chilli, and served with salad and little triangles of fried and crunchy bammy (a flat bread made from cassava). The sea bass was denuded of any frippery and was served as it lived, modestly bathed in only the juices in which it was steamed and a bouquet of fresh thyme leaves filling its gut. Tasting as if it had been caught to order, the meat was juicy, subtly flavoured and cooked perfectly. It came with a stew-like mixture of okra, potatoes and carrots, as well as soda crackers and more bammy. Years have passed since I’ve had okra but Little Ochi reminded me of how much I love it. The sauce from the fish made a satisfying gravy for the entire plate, although I would have preferred my bammy to be served fried as opposed to wet, and found the soda crackers far too soggy for my liking.
We finished our meal and I sat entirely contented and also a bit embarrassed. I consider myself an adventurous eater but I was ashamed that I would have normally walked by a place like this. Here sits a small restaurant that does what it does exceedingly well, quietly and confidently. It needs none of the extras that we find so irritating or endearing about the London dining scene. Instead, it relies on quality and simplicity and is, ultimately, very good.
Meal for two including soft drinks, no service £24
Lindsay blogs at blondevsbland.com