I wasn’t looking forward to visiting Papa L’s Kitchen. Initially that was because I’d been reading the name as Papal Kitchen – that’s a theme restaurant, and post-supper guilt, I can happily live without – and then, when I realised my mistake, because… well, for an African restaurant, it didn’t seem particularly African. It was also quite hard to get a sense of exactly what to expect. A friend commented that the Papa L website looks more like a catering site than a restaurant site, a list of possible dishes rather than an indication of what’s on offer. They were right. The whole thing felt a little muddled, like they were struggling for a sense of what they do.
Which just goes to show how my reading of a website and my clumsy application of cod psychology can be completely wrong. I mean, the website is a bit of a mess but then Papa L – or Lawrence Gomez as he’s known to his mum – is something of an itinerant chef. This restaurant is more of a pop-up – hopefully being extended through 2021 – and his main activities are thus private dining, corporate dining, and such like. You can now find a copy of the actual menu on the site. And, actually, while it’s still not as full on an African experience as I think London could probably take these days, Gomez’s focus is on combining his professional background – heading up the Private Dining at The Ivy, an 18 month stint at Sexy Fish – with a hint of the personal, nudging diners into something new while delivering food of quite serious quality.
Heritage tomatoes, red pepper pesto, toasted hard dough, basil dressing is a fresh, bright dish. Tempura okra, however, is a revelation. My grim okra experiences far outnumber my positive okra experiences but this is firmly in the latter part of that poll. Squeeze of lemon, the homemade chilli salt sprinkled over its crispy exterior… My cynicism was being chipped happily away. And then the Grilled King Tiger Prawns arrived. And oh my lord, what a dish this is. The description gives no hint of what you’re getting but they’re smeared in spices, glistening with chilli and, I assume, sitting in a slick of the burnt scotch bonnet oil mentioned elsewhere on the menu. I did mean to ask but I was busy tearing at shells, sucking the heads, and devouring the meaty flesh. Besides it’s rude to speak with your mouth full. You’ll want a side of the coco bread – crispy, light, sweet, wonderfully absorbent – to mop up the plate. And then, probably, a second order. It’s genuinely that good.
It’s to the credit of the chargrilled sea bass, with sweet potato three ways, that follows, that it doesn’t feel like a step down in quality. It’s a beautiful looking and supremely well-cooked plate of food. It’s certainly more successful than the black eye bean and plantain burger which is an alright-I-suppose veggie main. The cassava fries are great but the burger… let’s move on. If you’re a vegetarian, go with side dishes, the salads, more okra. You’ll be far better covered that way.
It is, however, the only misstep because the quality jumps back up to prawn-levels of quality with the desserts. I was this close to declaring the Lemon and Honey Posset with cinnamon fritters as the best pudding of 2021 and then the rum cake arrived. It’s served with vanilla gelato and rum crumbs and looks like… well, a cake and ice cream. It’s almost a shame that the presentation is so humble because this is a sensation waiting to happen, Instagram or otherwise. It is a thing of sticky, fluffy, remarkably light, crispy, boozy joy. My dining companion snuck back 48 hours later to have another and I can’t say I blame her.
To say that Papa L’s – and Papa L – turned my cynicism around is an understatement. Ignore the website, ignore the burger, ignore my pre-arrival idiocy. This is good cooking with the occasional splash of legendary. Throw in some great cocktails and the rum list, the brilliant service – thank you, Anna – and a brilliant playlist (it’s on Spotify and runs for about a week, if you’re interested), and you’ve got an excellent night out by any definition. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m heading to Mayfair for another plate of prawns…
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