A newcomer to the Brixton scene in London, dim sum restaurant Courtesan has been attracting attention; and not just because of the food, drinks and live cabaret.
Part of the buzz surrounding this new establishment is its owner Hammant Patel Villa’s decision to bring a woman’s touch to Courtesan – by running it as what he’s calling a ‘female-focused’ venue.
‘The venue boasts an all-female chef team led by Feng Juan He, managed by Viktorija Kaskonaite who started with us at 17 and is now the general manager,’ Villa says. ‘Not to mention the luminous core of female-owned or produced spirits and wines.’
So what inspired Villa to create a female-focused venue?
He says that while researching wines and spirits for Courtesan, he was unable to glean much information about producers’ genders from UK distributors.
But a heated discussion at a wine fair filled him with renewed determination to make the selection of ‘made by women’ wines and spirits come alive.
‘Upon tasting an out-of-this-world Sauvignon Blanc, I foolishly surmised that the wine could not be natural, it had been doctored, as the flavours were too intense and the structure too immense,’ he recalls. As the woman who served him the wine turned out to be its maker, she ‘defended the accusation robustly’.
He says that in his ensuing dressing down he discovered the native New Zealander – who was working for Yealands Estate – had also lived opposite the very site in Brixton where Courtesan now stands. So, Tamra Washington unwittingly became one of the driving forces behind the menu.
‘From that moment, we would only be entertaining female-made wines and spirits, and challenged the distributors to comply,’ Villa says defiantly.
The menu itself ‘adds adventure to the guest’s story’ and focuses strongly on food pairing, moving through aperitifs to ‘pairing and daring’ drinks to complement dim sum, along with digestifs and dessert wines.
A year in the making, creating an all-female drinks list was no mean feat. With a little from their friends, the wine list was complete long before the spirits were decided upon.
‘Fortunately,’ Villa says, ‘wine guru Greg Scrive from Matthew Clark dived through the sea of brands and came up with pearls.’
He adds that the real blessing is his team’s close relationship with many of the winemakers and distillers whose wares they stock: ‘There are real people behind the brands who are immensely proud of their produce.’
With those courtesans of old in mind, theatre is one other inescapable aspect of Villa’s operation. ‘Every act and action is on display at the Court for the whole world to see and admire and so every act and action must have purpose,’ he says. ‘It depends on the guest, the night and the adventure, but I actually love the reactions to the stories.
‘The drink that still gets me to stop and reflect is the Courtier,’ reveals Villa, drawing our discussion to a close with one such story. ‘This drink was devised for a Courtier that realised that his life was over.
‘Being a pragmatic realist he calmly takes this drink that announces itself with star anise to awaken his soul. The deep mouthfeel of the Naked and Smokey Black Grouse Whiskies enables contemplation of the fullness of his life experience.
‘Ruminating on the pine-tar smoke of the lapsang souchong tea, he enjoys sweet moments with the rich, mature flavour of fig liqueur and love that burnt bright, with the bite of the bird chilli. This is the last drink I’ll ever have.’