Maestro
45 Deptford Broadway
Depford
Lewisham SE8 4PH
05/03/2011
When you decide to embark on a mission in the borough Sid Vicious was born in, you don’t quite know what to expect. And then, when you discover its motto is “Salus Populi Suprema Lex”, (more or less: “The Welfare of the People is the first great Law”) and that Gary Oldman, Jude Law, and even the Russian Tsar Peter the Great gravitated around Lewisham, you put your worries aside and venture into the high street with an inquisitive but open mind. And eyes open too, of course! However, we didn’t go there to examine the art scene, but to have a taste of Cameroon.

Maestro Bar & Restaurant has a website, a proper one. With pictures, opening times, menus and reservation link; the real deal. A bit of research on national dishes, a quick stop to fill up the gas tank – half of which evaporated later trying to find a parking space – and off we go. As we walked in we weren’t sure the place was open to customers: three people – two of whom getting ready to leave – were shaking hands at a table in the middle of the room. Edo and I looked at each other and instantly question marks replaced our pupils. I timidly asked: “Can we…?” and an ever so polite “Of course” from the owner magically turned my apprehension into ease. Shades of yellow and orange on the walls, two plasma TVs, a small but well equipped stage, bar with plenty of drinks to choose from, suggested Maestro must be a lively place during weekends. I was having a good time; Edo clearly was not. And the fact the Crab Brochette he order were finished probably didn’t help.
Ntaba, Ndole, Alloko and Bobolo, is what we chose in the end. Even though they sound like Sex Pistols’ African cousins, they are Cameroonian national dishes. Ntaba is actually Congolese, as we were later told, and to be honest rather bad. It’s goat meat – cured and grilled – with hot spices on the side. It is the leatheriest thing I have ever tried in my life; the flavour… I wouldn’t even know how to describe it. Thank god for the fiery spices, let’s put it this way… Having now reached “C” in our journey it takes more to put me off, so I confidently move on to Alloko. Fried plantain. As simple as that. Not disappointed. Ndole, a stew of bitter leaves, meat or shrimp (we had shrimp) and peanut paste was tasty, a completely new flavour which we liked a lot. I just wish I had left it in the end to “cleanse” my mouth from the horrid, nasty, evil taste of Bobolo. It’s boiled cassava dough, a Cameroonian version of bread I suppose. It looks nice: a gigantic cheese straw but not crispy. Then add the smell – and possibly flavour –of the vinilic glue the Punks used to sniff, let it ferment until it reminds you of rancid milk and there you have it.

The fact the owner was surprised we knew about his restaurant and Ndole without having been to Cameroon, the fact he offered to cook tilapia (a fish) just so we could try it, the fact he asked if we wanted to take the leftovers with us and the fact I am insensitive but managed to find his eyes sweet and kind, made me walk away with a smile. And a very small bill of £25. Service not included and water only.

  • Food: 2
  • Ambience: 2.5
  • Service: 3
  • Value: 2.5
  • Overall: 2.5
Monica
I am starting to radically disagree with my wife. She did not like the Cambodian, which I thought was alright; she liked Cameroon, which I found… well, read on. I wonder what’s happening here.

She found the place, in Lewisham… or was it Depford… or was it Inner Mongolia… somewhere East, far far away. There aren’t any other Cameroonian restaurants in London: lots of African / Central African ones but none with a distinct identity. This one is a proper Cameroonian hangout for that community: it surely ticks the authenticity box. It is apparently packed on weekends.

The website, in a forest of spelling and grammar mistakes and depressing pictures, boasts it is “hailed by many as the best bar restaurant in the world”, and that its “visionary chef and founder leads the way in a culinary revolution”. There is really no limit to how preposterous random website claims can be. I know, I should take it with a smile, but for fuck’s sake, how can anyone, I mean anyone, be so brainless and ignorant to think that such a statement isn’t going to be met with derision by any reader who’s ever been out of that block in Lewisham? With a fleeting thought to the Fat Duck and the Louis XV I headed there, straight from work.

I was nervous all night because the car was parked outside and was probably the most expensive vehicle within a radius of miles. Neither of us had changed clothes, so I was in full Armani / Corneliani / Prada and Monica had a Damier bag that was bigger than her. A guy stared at us walking out of the car and into the place as if we had been aliens.

The restaurant was empty but for the owner and a couple of people who soon left. The interior was basic and dated but in fairness an effort had been made to make it pretty. There was a bandstand and a small stage, big flatscreens were pumping out French hip hop, and for a moment I thought this might be quite a fun place on a Saturday night, full of people and with live music. Sadly, at 8pm on a random Thursday night, it had no atmosphere and was just depressing.

Roast lamb starter: the crab biscuits had run out so I had this utterly inedible plate, which consisted of bite-sized pieces of lamb, most of them comprising bones, nerves and fat, whose meat had the consistency of tough leather. There was no sauce or anything, it had been roasted with some spices but none of it mattered because it was just not for human consumption. I do not think my late cat would have eaten it. I honestly can’t think of a worse meat dish in my life.

Fried Plantain: that’s a bit like pizza, even when it’s lousy it’s still pretty good. This one was undercooked and was basically chunks of banana with a thin crust but I still ate it all.

Ndole: the national dish. It is a paste of herbs, spinach, peanuts and various other things which contains either shrimps or meat. I had the shrimp version and it was good. The shrimps tasted a bit fishy, maybe not the freshest around but the paste was delicious. We wiped the plate clean.

Something whose name I can’t remember that’s made with cassava and takes the place of bread. It looked and tasted like a giant lump of solidified vinyl glue, but in little morsels with the ndole it was actually alright.

The owner / waiter was very kind, informative, helpful, timely, a gentleman. Service was very good and we were made to feel at ease even in an empty dining room. He was intrigued by the fact we obviously knew what ndole was, so Monica explained the research and that we are going to all the world’s restaurants. They are supposed to take cards but they don’t, so I had to walk to the cashpoint which is not close.

Most of the places we are going to for the mission are very economical, far more than anything I can easily benchmark against, but we have now been to a sufficient number I can start to compare. For the same price of the Cambodian (£30 for two, water only) we got worse ambience, worse food and better service, hence slightly less value for money in my view.

  • Food: 1.5
  • Ambience: 2
  • Service: 3.5
  • Value: 2
  • Overall: 2.25
Edo
CAMEROON