Monday, August 11, 2008

Big eats at Momma Cherri's (Brighton part 1)

Momma Cherri's Big House
2-3 Little East Street
01273 325305

You may well have heard of Momma Cherri. She was the star of a classic episode of 'Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares' in 2005, and a revisited episode in 2007.

In 2005 the then named 'Soul Food Shack' was in dire trouble, for once it wasn't the standard of food that was the problem but simply the lack of business knowhow and staff that were allowed to get away with far too much lazing around. Ramsay stepped in and helped them turn it around. Now relocated and renamed, 'Momma Cherri's Big House' still carries the celebrity baggage of the series, which isn't always a good thing for a restaurant. I had no real idea if it would live up to the hype or whether it was merely coasting on the fame. After all in the 2007 episode Gordon found he still had work to do in maintaining discipline in the restaurant and some of the reviews I had read online were less than favourable...

So it was with slight trepidation that myself, the Veggie and the Blonde (a friend from Crawley) made our way to the 'Big House'. You can't really miss the restaurant especially if you approach it going up the hill, as the exterior boasts a large and colourful design featuring Momma Cherri's cheerful face. After hours of shopping we were all looking forward to a nice sit down and this place delivered. With a cosy, if a little worn interior, looking more like a family home than a restuarant, we were shown to a table upstairs. Reggae and soul music played at a perfect level and the soft oranges and yellows of the colour scheme were warm and inviting. Little details such as family photos on the tablemats all added to the appeal.

This establishment is definitely family friendly (we were next to a rather noisy group - its probably not the best place for a first date) and although it isn't a huge restaurant it never felt cramped even as it began to fill. Our waitress, Josie, was very friendly and pleasant. We were told the specials and then handed the food and drink menus. Immediately the jug of home-made lemonade for 5 pounds stood out. We ordered one and also wine, beer and a cider. Draught beer and one of the speciality beers were off, but this didn't affect us in anyway. I suppose if you really wanted 'Red Stripe' it might, although this may have also been available by the bottle I didn't ask.

We had already decided between ourselves that the speciality 'Soul in a bowl' tapas-style dishes to share, which Gordon had helped to create as a concept, were not for us. Although you got a generous 4 starters and 4 mains for 13.50 each (this being the smallest selection), we felt that due to having a vegetarian amongst us it might be a bit difficult to have what we wanted. The menu does request that you tell them if you have any special requirment such as being a non-meat eater, but and this might put some off, you cannot select the dishes yourselves. They operate a 'Momma knows best' policy whereby you get a range of the most popular dishes. This is all very well and would suit some but as it was our first time and we weren't sure what to expect, we opted to order separately.

The choice of dishes was impressive and they cater very well for vegetarians with stuffed peppers, curried sweet potatoes, veg jambalya and a veg platter being just a few of the choices.

I was tempted by a starter of catfish goujons as I have never tried catfish before. However after some thought we all decided to skip the starter so we had some hope of managing one of the delicious sounding home-made desserts. As we umm and ahhed over the main courses (ribs, fried chicken, jerk chicken, mac and cheese etc.), we watched as other people's orders came out. They were quite large portions.

Eventually both the Blonde and I went for the fried chicken which came with sweet potato and white potato mash, gravy, cornbread and veg of the day. The Veggie decided on the stuffed red peppers with salad with curried sweet potatoes on the side. Mains ranged from around 9 pounds to 13 pounds and sides were 3 pounds. We sipped our home-made lemonade (non-fizzy as it should be but more like lemon squash than anything it still quenched our thirsts and was good value), while we waited.

Our food all came out together and we proceeded to eat in silence. It was all so good! The fried chicken was the best I've ever tasted, it was crisp, tasty and the chicken was not at all watery or greasy. The mash and gravy was lovely and the veg of the day was curried sweet potatoes, which were just gorgeous. The only thing I wasn't quite sure of was the cornbread. It came in a little square and looked like a sponge cake. It was a bit too stodgy and weird-tasting for me, but I ate it all! I'm not sure what cornbread is supposed to be like but judging by the rest of the cooking it was probably accurate. Perhaps the odd 'neither sweet nor savoury' taste was an acquired one.

The Veggie raved about her dish, consisting of two red peppers one sweet and pointed the other standard. Both with different fillings of lentils and similar. The salad came with potatoes with sweetcorn and she managed most of it. It was nice to see interesting vegetarian food being served in an establishment that you might think strongly favoured meat eaters.

The Blonde and I polished off our plates, although she left her cornbread, and declared we thought we could force down dessert. After checking what Key Lime pie was (a kind of cheesecake but with condensed milk and lime zest) I went for it. The Blonde choose Pecan pie and the Veggie the berry cheesecake. All desserts were 4.50p but well worth it. Each came with an unannounced but welcome dollop of whipped cream and small ball of vanilla ice cream and some kind of strawberry sauce. My pie was very yummy though very rich. The gingernut base and cinnamon sprinkle were lovely touches. I tried the Pecan pie which was caramelly and nutty and sweet - perfect. The berry cheesecake also got the thumbs up although the Veggie wasn't too sure about the pastry case.

All in all we had a lovely meal and 'experience'. We could have done without the screaming kid behind us (and they were provided with pens and colouring books and a kids menu!) but I would certainly go back as there are many other dishes I want to try. Our bill came to approx 65 pounds but the 'optional' service of 12.5% was already added. My only real gripe. I do hate it when restaurants do that as the tip often doesn't go to the service staff. That and we were given the wrong bill to begin with, but only a small thing really. We felt service was good enough that we wouldn't make an issue of the service charge, so paid around 73 pounds between us. 'Momma Cherri's' isn't cheap but it is good value and we felt pleasantly full not bloated afterwards. I suppose if you did opt for the tapas style dishes you could end up paying more but as a treat it definitely beats a chain restaurant. 'Momma Cherri' (Charita Jones) was nowhere to be seen (hopefully she was in the kitchen) and the toilets could use a little work, but the place has a great feel about it and I would definitely recommend it.

Scores on the Doors - 8+1/2 out of 10

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