Brixton has long been the battleground in which young upstarts of the restaurant scene slug it out for supremacy. They open with scant funding and grand ideas, inspired by the success of countless others before them, to strive upwards with bold ambition for glory and, usually, a bigger site.
Three Uncles Brixton, the new opening from Pui Sing, Cheong Yew and Mo Kwok (hence the name) is in some way a departure from this. The concept has been tried and tested elsewhere in town, with successful sites already in Camden and Devonshire Row; this third opening in Brixton market then is less Genesis and more Leviticus.
First and foremost there is very little wrong with Three Uncles as a business and a restaurant. On the former, the branding is good, there is a loyal customer base and there’s always a queue. On the latter, the service is friendly and informed, the menu is full of well-loved dishes that will entice any novice without fear and the food is generally speaking fine.
But that’s just the thing – fine. Three Uncles in Brixton feels like something of a missed opportunity. Nothing we ate there was “bad” per se, but great? Just once I’d have liked the restaurant to loosen the reins, tantalise my senses and throw me a wildcard, but that never happened.
The char siu bao started the meal with great flavour, that nostalgic, slick barbecue with tender fatty pork enclosed in a classic, if slightly claggy, bao. Next up the pork and prawn siu mai – a fine single bite – was accompanied by a glimmering, well-made sauce of rich umami which, as all great sauces do, elevated the entire dish and provided a restful home for this sweet meaty hit.
Three Uncles specialises in roasted meats though and it’s here that my grumbles began. It’s not the meats themselves (on this occasion the duck and pork were majestic) it’s what goes with them.
The pork belly was exactly as you’d expect, a deeply crispy skin protecting flabby, succulent pork, blissfully bathed in its own belly fat until impossibly tender. The roasted duck, served atop a wholesome bone broth, arrived with generosity, and the mild gaminess of the rose flesh reminiscent of some of the best duck in town.
For me, the problems lie in what accompanies these meats. The rice and imperceptible saucing on the crispy pork dish left me wanting so much more. A greater diversity of textures, another sauce for moisture and seasoning and a supporting cast of spices need to find their way into these dishes, and fast. I can’t bemoan what isn’t on the plate, but what is there feels too simple, too – dare I say – pedestrian. The broth in the duck and char sui noodle soup is cooked first thing in the morning, but still has a huge amount of room for greater depth of flavour. I know it gets a bad rep, but the whole thing felt like it would benefit from adding some much maligned MSG.
These guys quite clearly know how to cook, they know their way around meat and have mastered a roasting technique that’s garnered their cult-like following. But it feels as if it’s a restaurant playing it safe. The menu is full of crowd pleasing favourites not because that food is what they want to cook, but that’s what they have to cook. Yet it’s in the bravery of a restaurant’s ambition, seen throughout Brixton’s incubator-like history in places like Smoke and Salt, Kricket and Sarap, that success has been achieved.
With rising costs creating massive pressure and a government that has a vice-like grip on incompetence when it comes to supporting hospitality, playing it safe is a fully understandable business strategy. For me though, Three Uncles can afford to muster up some courage and take everything to the next level.
Unit 19 & 20 Brixton Village
by Mike Daw