Carsten Höller's art installation opened in November and has since received some good reviews. Finally on Saturday I managed to get down there having excitedly, possibly unnecessarily, booked three weeks in advance with an intimidatingly well spoken hostess whom I mistook for the automated message.
The concept behind the Double Club (If I understand correctly) is a cultural exchange between the Congo and the West, bringing the food, the music and the aesthetics of both societies together side by side, 'creating a dialogue' as their website puts it. The bar is split between a Congolese beer shack (complete with wood imported from Kinshasa) and a polished copper cocktail bar 'The Two Horses Riders Club'. On the dancefloor rhythms alternate between Congolese Soukous and Western house, and the eclectic decor encompasses everything from Andy Warhol to large murals advertising 'Primus' beer. As fascinating as the whole experience was as art, I couldn't kid myself, I was there for the goat.
True to the double theme the restaurant serves a menu divided into both Congolese, and Western brasserie food. Arriving at 9:30 with the party already jumping we were seated on a sleek black designer table and chairs whilst the table next to us ate on white plastic garden furniture, such dichotomy. Although it seemed the done thing to order a mix of Western and Congolese (with most diners veering towards Western) we went Congolese on the waiter, ordering everything on offer, 9 dishes or so which was just about right for the six of us. I was massively disappointed to find they were out of 'Primus' the Congolese beer that was trumpeted about the club. I had heard explorers tales of thirst slaying 1ltr bottles, unfortunately we had to make do with dainty Spanish bottles of Estrella.
The flippant 'I'll have one of everything' brought a fine selection of exotic dishes;
Liboke Na Mbisi (Catfish cooked in marantacee leaves)
Goat in Liboké (Goat stew in marantacee leaves)
Makayubu (Saltfish cooked with onions, tomatoes and chili)
Chicken Bouakee (a tomato, pepper and chicken stew)
Pig's trotter with white beans
Kossa Kossa (Large prawns with a chili and garlic sauce)
Fumbwa (Yam leaves cooked with peanut paste and smoked saltfish)
Pondu (Manioc leaves cooked with smoked saltfish and palm oil)
Bitekuteku (Green vegetables with aubergine and smoked saltfish)
These were accompanied by plain boiled rice, fried plantain, and Chikwange (manioc paste baked in a loaf shape in marantacee leaves).
The goat I'd been looking forward to wasn't bad. The sauce with tomato and chili was flavoursome and well spiced but lacked the richness of it's West Indian counterparts. The meat although tender was dry and hadn't stood up to a stewing, it failed to impart the wisdom obtained from tougher, fattier cuts on the bone.
A surprising highlight however was the catfish. My prejudices had prevented me from trying it in the past; as a freshwater bottom feeder I had heard it tasted muddy and bland. The catfish at the Double Club was a revelation. Steamed in a bundle of leaves with onions, garlic, chili and lime juice, it was clean and refreshing.
Another new experience was the various dishes of greens, which we over did a bit. Fumbwa (yam leaves with peanut paste and smoked saltfish) was rich and satisfying yet hard to eat much of. Pondu (manioc leaves cooked with smoked saltfish) reminded me a lot of its descendant, West Indian Calaloo. It's an acquired taste (but very good for you) and the slightly bitter gelatinous leaves needed more saltfish to liven them up. Bitekuteku, Amaranth leaves (used in the Jamaican version of Calaloo) were very similar but benefited from the addition of aubergine which had caramelised nicely.
There were the more conventional dishes such as Makayabu (Saltfish with onion, tomatoes and chili) which appeared to be saltcod and was well prepared. The fish was still firm yet not too salty, perfectly complimented by the sweetness of the tomatoes and onions. The trotters and white beans were pleasant, the combination struck me as a possible Belgian/French colonial legacy. Chicken Bouakee, stewed chicken with tomatoes and peppers was tasty but nothing exciting and the Kossa Kossa giant prawns were big prawns which needed perking up a bit with a chili and vinegar sauce. At £11.00 for three they weren't my choice.
Chikwange the baked cassava paste made for a challenging side dish. Starchy and tasteless with a thick gluelike consistency which coated the roof of your mouth it was clearly a staple born out of necessity. Dipped in stew it was ok.
The Congolese side of the menu was considerably cheaper than the Western. Between the six of us including a couple of beers each and wine (no palm wine unfortunately) it was about £190.
Having finished the meal I headed to the toilets hoping I wouldn't have to squat in the cubicle with the long drop. They were pitch black, whether this was Carsten's comment on Conrad's description of the Congo as 'The Heart of Darkness' I don't know, but men emerged with wet shoes and women with bizarre make up.
I have to admit I arrived at the Double Club with preconceptions. I was expecting complete pretension, it's sponsored by Fondazione Prada (and was originally going to be called the Prada Congo Club!). In an interview I saw, Höller seemed Teutonically humourless. Having been to restaurants which appear to be at the heart of ethnic communities in London I was very sceptical of the Double Club's arty 'fabrication' of Congolese culture and was really just there to try the food.
It is a bit pretentious, but still quite a fun and relaxed atmosphere. There's a fascinating mix of people, from the glamorous and the arty to lanky scruffs like me. Tellingly there were a lot of Africans, not just Congolese, we also met Ivorians and Cameroonians. The immaculately dressed Congolese 'Sappeurs' seemed so proud that the vitality of their culture was being celebrated so extravagantly when all too often the poverty and brutality of the Congo is highlighted in the media. As a fitting recognition of these problems 50% of the club's profits are being donated to the Unicef 'City of Joy' Charity for the women and children victims of the country's civil war.
The Double Club, 7 Torrens Street EC1V 1NQ
Tel: 020 7837 2222