Eating Congolese in London


This article was also published in the Financial Times.

The two chefs sitting at the table could not have come from more diverse backgrounds, although each obviously shares a love of good home cooking.

David Jones is from Sheffield, Yorkshire, and retains a strong northern accent as well as very happy memories of his mother’s roast beef, roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding.

Madame Pepe Kasongo is from Katanga, the southernmost province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and was for several years an assistant cook in a large school canteen in London. Her readiness to answer my questions about Congolese food could not hide the fact that she would rather get straight back into the kitchen, where she was preparing spicy shrimps, fresh and salted catfish and goat stew for that night’s busy service.

Jones and Kasongo have been working closely together in a specially created kitchen since November 2008 when The Double Club opened as a bar, club and restaurant in a street behind Angel tube station in Islington, north London.

Originally, it was to be open for only six months, following in the successful footsteps of several other ‘pop-up’ or temporary restaurants. But The Double Club has exceeded all expectations and will now be open until at least July, although anyone wanting even a relatively quiet night should book for a Tuesday or Wednesday evening. The rest of the week it is very, very noisy.

There are various reasons why in retrospect The Double Club has proved so popular but I think it would be quite easy to overlook the obvious – it serves very good and fascinating Congolese food.

The club draws its name from the fact that those who created it want to offer the best of the west alongside the best of the Congo. So there are two menus; a well-sourced wine list (for which a magnifying glass is necessary as the print is so small); a list of potent cocktails; and a range of premium beers such as Primus, Temba and Turbo King which have finally, and only with great difficulty, been imported from the Congo.

Our table chose to mix and match the Western and Congolese menus. The former produced a fresh Cornish crab, tomato and avocado salad; a chicken Caesar salad; and a plump veal chop with celeriac chips and creamed leeks that were very well cooked and reasonably priced.

The Congolese menu involves more of a journey of discovery. There is fumbwa, yam leaves cooked in peanut paste; smoked salted fish, a dish even Kasongo admitted was an acquired taste for many Congolese; bitekuteku, a dish of vegetables with calalou and more smoked fish; an excellent goat stew wrapped in liboke or banana leaves; chicken bouakee, Congolese braised chicken; and bowls of deep-fried plantain and steamed rice.

Sourcing the main ingredients has proved easier than Jones anticipated. 'We do import some ingredients directly from the Congo, particularly the spices we use for marinating the chicken, beef, and goat skewers we sell from the barbecue in the bar. But a lot of the other ingredients we’ve been able to source mainly at the markets in Dalston and Leyton in east London. I’ve never been to the Congo sadly but I’ve come to realise that its cooking styles have spread very widely, up to the Caribbean in particular, and that its ingredients have a lot in common with countries on a similar latitude like Brazil, for example. So we have been able to get the right ingredients from the long-established Jamaican shops in London and we’ve found several Brazilian chefs to follow Madame Kasongo’s example.'

Our evening at The Double Club brought back happy memories of the two evenings we had spent in Salvador, north east Brazil. The ever-so-long legs on the receptionist who escorted us from the front door were, at least as far as I was concerned, a good start. Then there was the very varied African art on the walls; the plastic chairs that are dotted around the restaurant; the well-made caipirinhas; as well as the driving music. All of these – and the table next to us of seven Congolese women and one fortunate Congolese man – contributed to a sensation of heat that if not genuine or sweltering definitely seemed in vivid contrast to the cold we had left outside.

The unlikely combination of Jones and Kasongo in the kitchen is mirrored in the unlikely association of those who have conjured up this fascinating club in the equally unlikely surroundings of a former scrapyard, conveniently from a noise perspective, at the end of a cul-de-sac.

These include the artist Carsten Hoeller, apparently long fascinated by the Congo, who has collated the extraordinary art on the walls; the financial support of The Guaranty Trust Bank plc of Nigeria and the Fondazione Prada; and the culinary and management expertise of Mourad Mazouz and his team at Momo restaurant in Heddon Street, who make a temporary kitchen and restaurant run so professionally.

The Double Club has two other distinguishing features. The first is that it is a not for profit organisation which hopes to donate a significant sum to City of Joy, a Congolese charity for abused women and children, by the time it closes. The second, and this cannot be said of too many restaurants, is that a night here really does feel like a short, memorable if rather frenetic, holiday.

The Double Club