Traditional Jamaican flavours meets British classics at Wood & Water.
Traditional Jamaican flavours meets British classics at Wood & Water.
Wood and Water is the perfect escapism from the fast-paced outside world. It’s a place where you can relax, unwind and gently be cradled into the world of Jamaican cuisine.
When offered the chance to visit a restaurant championing Jamaican flavours in the heart of Brixton, I had to jump at the opportunity. Growing up with a Jamaican grandmother, a woman who was very much the matriarch of our family unit I was introduced to Jamaican flavours at an early age – the story goes my first solid food was curried goat. From as young as I can remember, every August bank holiday was spent on her stoop in Notting Hill watching the carnival go by – vats of that curry goat perched on a fold out table, ladelled into paper bowls to not only family and friends but any passers by that wanted a taste. To accompany the curry there were wash tubs and I mean wash tubs, of rum punch. This stuff started potent but as the day went on and Gran got more and more ‘loose’ , generous glugs of rum were replaced with whole bottles and before you knew it, most guests were putting on their own carnival.
As I entered my early twenties I moved to Brixton – this was the place we were warned of as kids. A bit rough with not much going on. I remember sneaking to a gig at the age of 16 at the Academy feeling like Mrs Big Balls until I emerged from from the tube station into a gust of cold wind, tentacles of pungent incense wrapping around me and muffled voices singing what sounded like sinister nursery rhymes advertising all the wares on offer. I was terrified. When a room came up in a house that was too good to turn down, I ventured back. Friends had been living there for a year and casually commented “it’s fine, I’ve only been mugged once and the police were really good that time we got broken into”. We were there before the gentrification came into full force. Brixton market was just that, a market selling giant african snails (I still don’t know why), pigs trotters (which my Gran made me buy a bag of every time I went to visit her – side note, my Gran and I’s meeting place was the 5th Floor Bar at Harvey Nichols. Do you know how weird you feel hiking a bag of pigs feet into Harvey Nichols?) and a hundred other things that I didn’t know what to do with. Walking down Brixton Hill felt like a hike to the ends of the earth, there was no scattering of coffee shops and low lit bars to break up the journey, just many many questionable off licenses. But with all that in mind, it truly was the most magical place to spend your uni years – the energy, the diversity, the peopler – I wouldn’t change a thing about it, not even the break ins because they made for some fantastic dinner party chat.
Heading back ten years later, I knew the Brixton I had fallen in love with had changed. I was prepared for the glaring lights of Foxtons estate agents, although I can’t tell you how happy I was to see the clothes shop ‘RISKY’ is still steadfast right next door to them. From the tube I walked down Electric Avenue but instead of following the familiar path into the market, nipped out onto Coldharbour Lane and into the warm, welcoming arms of Wood and Water.
I’m not quite sure how they’ve done it but the two things I feared the most – the loss of heritage and the over the top ‘place to be’ vibe – they have managed to amalgamate into a near perfect setting. The restaurant is small – perhaps twenty covers in the main seating area with a long bar with additional high tops for those looking for a cocktail and a snack – for which I applaud you, the cocktails are worth the trip alone but I’ll get onto that in a minute. A combination of low lighting, sumptuous velvet chairs and gorgeous dark wood accents can only be described as a hug. This place literally hugs you as you walk in. Totally juxtaposed from the bustle that is going on a mere twenty feet away – here is sanctuary and intimacy. It is the kind of place you get lost in a date and only realise once the staff gently start sweeping around you. April Jackson has truly created something magic here.
Jackson told Sophie Witts of The Caterer that “After a hard year, it is time to go back to the reason I started six years ago, which was to share my love for Jamaica through delicious food, rum cocktails and warm hospitality.” And in summary, she’s bloody nailed it. We were welcomed in with warm arms by Julien, perhaps the best mixologist south of the river. Instantly you could feel what April has strived to create oozing out of every part of the set up – the menu, the cocktail list, the staff – I was sitting in a boujee restaurant in Brixton but I had been transported to memories of my wonderful Gran and my Jamaican roots.
The cocktail menu was a work of art in itself. My dining partner and I settled on one each, the Pistachio Sour and Birds of Paradise – two very different offerings but both laced with artisanal rum. The Pistachio Sour creamy from the nut milk with a refreshing hit of lemon, the Birds of Paradise, long and fruity with everything you would expect from a drink with such a name – passion fruit and pineapple aplenty. This guy certainly had notes of that infamous rum punch I grew up with but rest assured, there were no wash tubs to be seen. To compliment our cocktails we were offered some snacks – let it be known, I NEVER turn down a snack. Paella popcorn laced with prawn jus & chorizo. I was a little confused when I saw this on the menu, I couldn’t tell you why my head instantly went to the weird chicken popcorn the colonel down the road sells but turns out it was the regular popcorn – for which I am pretty grateful. Packed with a deep prawn flavour that you only really get through roasting the shells and straining of the juices – for something as ‘simple’ as a popcorn bar snack, the bar had been raised. To get this much flavour into such a tiny morsel of food is nothing short of impressive and I was beyond excited for what was to come next. We also snacked on Cancha, a roasted corn nut which was also delicious and moreish.
When taking in the main menu it was apparent that fusion was a key component, Jackson went on to explain to Sophie Witts that “Brixton is still changing and we are eager to change with it. I am excited to serve small plates that have familiar ingredients alongside some less familiar Jamaican elements, in a newly renovated space, with an interesting collection of rums and an energy that keeps you wanting more.”
I am always a little suspicious when the word ‘fusion’ raises its head but here April has identified a need so accurately that I can’t see how this restaurant wouldn’t succeed. Hopping on the trend of small plates for those busy bees that are a simply too pressed for time to eat a full course meal, bringing together familiar ingredients to appease the less adventurous diners and gently introduce them to Jamaican ingredients in a safe and secure setting such as a pumpkin veloute and roast poussin served up like a roast dinner is inspired.
We were advised that four or five plates would suffice. So of course, true to form, we went for seven – no regrets.
To start, slow cooked goat croquettes with plantain ketchup and king prawns with scotch bonnet, lemongrass and ginger. The croquettes. Oh my days. That was it. I was back in Notting Hill living my best life. Meltingly soft meat, crispy coating, the plantain ketchup was perfectly balanced offering sweetness and heat. They were a revelation and I could have eaten a whole bowl full. The prawns came shelled but with their heads (I like to think the shells were used to flavour the popcorn). Perfectly cooked and again, the perfect balance of heat and sweet which is a theme throughout this menu. Again, this dish took me right back to my Gran who I remember would order fresh shellfish when we were in Jamaica and suck the heads within an inch of their life.
For our ‘mains’ we feasted and I mean feasted on the roasted pouisson, braised short rib with potato puree & petit pois. Salted cod, breadfruit, ackee and more of that plantain ketchup (which they really do need to bottle and sell) plantain in a honey and ginger glaze with pineapple salsa and charred baby gem.
The stand out dish for me was the shortrib – April’s take on a cottage pie was nothing short of perfect. Rich, deep braised beef and peas, topped with creamy mash – someone that can elevate the humblest of dishes to that level is pretty spesh. The salted cod and breadfruit is an acquired taste and quite unusual to the English palette. I have eaten it when in Jamaica but I wanted to try it in a more refined environment, for me it didn’t quite hit the mark but that’s not to say it wasn’t great. I would encourage anyone trying this restaurant to sample it given how important it is within Jamaican cuisine – if you are going to try it anywhere, try it here. The veg dishes of plantain and charred baby gem were fantastic – I have had many an experience with plantain some definite hits, some definite misses. This was a hit, caramalised to perfection to create a sweet crust encasing the soft fruit, and of course, perfectly paired with a subtle heat running through the salsa and ginger glaze. My least favourite dish was the pouisson, unfortunately the skin was not crisp as it should be meaning it had to be removed from the legs which is not ideal. However, the flavours were there and seeing the dish plated like a twist on a chicken roast dinner next to the humble (not really humble) cottage pie, it was clear what April was doing here.
For dessert we shared the cheesecake laced with ginger and rhum agricole – sugarcane juice rum. Again, putting a clear Jamaican stamp on an otherwise very American pud. It was punchy but holy moly it worked. Along with this we had banana bread with rum caramel, the notes of rum so strong it was almost medicinal but when drizzled over the sweet cake, perfectly balanced. By this point my liver had admitted defeat – we washed down our meal with the most delicious rosé – so threw caution to the wind and signed off the night with a couple more cocktails. Enter the Bounty Killer – a very Jamaican twist on an espresso martini which was TO DIE FOR and the Showstopper, so named because of its effervescent gold bubbles – very instagrammable, very delicious.
Wood and Water is the perfect escapism from the fast-paced outside world. It’s a place where you can relax, unwind and gently be cradled into the world of Jamaican cuisine. A couple of dishes perhaps need a bit of refinement to take this place from amazing to out of this world but all is forgiven when it managed to transport me back to one of the happiest times of my life.
MasterChef quarter finalist, food and travel writer and mental health muser Hannah Gregory is always on a quest for her next adventure. Happiest with a glass full of wine, a belly full of food and sun on her skin, she is constantly on the hunt for food led travel destinations.