For many of us, it is the norm to check review sites before going out to eat. Especially here in London where there are so many restaurants on offer.
As I searched for the best Caribbean food in town, I was surprised to see who was listed as number one on Tripadvisor.
Turtle Bay is a national chain serving dishes from the islands. But I find it controversial that it is termed the ‘best’ and I can imagine that it will create a lot of attention among independent Caribbean restaurant owners.
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So eager for a hearty lunch, I decided to see if my skepticism was justified and headed over to Brixton to find out if they deserved the coveted spot at the top.
The chain has over 40 branches in the UK, but it is the place on Brixton Road that is ridiculously rated as the best.
As I walked into the colorful, living space, I felt a little out of sorts.
Turtle Bay does not have a reputation for solo diners looking for food. It’s more common to be gaggles of 18-year-old girls having their first legal sip of alcohol, uni crowds swapping a lecture for happy hour, or a group of millennials looking for some after-work drinks.
Another worrying sign was that I was expecting a warm scent of spices and fresh cooking, but actually could not smell anything. In fact, I was so worried that I thought I had Covid again and had to pull some fragrant hand alcohol out to check.
This was the give-away that I was about to have a particularly boring meal, but I never expected it would be as tasteless as it was.
Emphasized by subtle reggae music and laughing friends enjoying afternoon drinks, I began to review the large menu.
For my lunch, I decided to start from what the menu itself claims to be ‘legendary’ and a ‘favorite’ across the islands; Chicken Roti Roll and a side of Mac ‘n’ Cheese.
The rotirulle, packed with avocado, pink onions, lettuce, jerk mayo and of course pulled smoked chicken, costs a reasonable £ 8 for a quick breakfast bite. A side of mac costs £ 4.40 – they couldn’t ruin something so simple, right? Spoiler, they did.
When I was uncharacteristically sensible, I ordered a ‘homemade’ pink lemonade. I worked so it was an alcohol-free lunch, but not having a cocktail in Turtle Bay is like not putting cheese in a toastie.
That drink was like a bag of sweets that had been boiled down in liquid form. For me personally, it was way too sweet. It would not even quench your thirst and not having a drop of lemon in did not suit my taste.
Disappointed with the sugar water in front of me, I did not have to wait long for my food to arrive, looking just as pale as it tasted.
I first dug in the mac n cheese, topped with a little chopped chili and chives. It steamed beautifully.
However, I quickly deduced that this high heat had come from any thing that had since been reheated in. This had to be some kind of ready-made lager mac and cheese that you would beat in the microwave for a sneaky snack. Except if you made it at home, you would probably respect it more.
Ok, this dish tends to be relatively common anyway, which is why it’s just so good. But Turtle Bay’s crispy offering did not even have such a spice in its mix.
By moving on to the cover, I had higher hopes as there seemed to be a little more life going on.
The roti flatbread, ‘fire-grilled to order’, was hardly grilled at all; it was way too nice and basically anemic in color. Other wraps I saw when I made the rounds for tables range from having black areas to the milk bottle-never-seen-sunscreen.
Pulled ‘jerk’ chicken was mostly dusted with spices and no other flavor. It gave me no smoke or the whisper of scotch bonnet.
I wanted a wrap that leaked over my hands, oozing hot juices that I would lick my fingers off with shameless bliss. Instead, I ate a dry wrap that gasped for a proper sauciness.
There were some lovely snaps from the pink onion, which gave some boost to the texture and flavor. Although the avocado looked past its best, it also offered a slight flavor that felt just as out of place as I was in the increasingly busy hangout.
Cry for blessing for the little pot of steaming liquid along with the rotary roll. A more fiery variation of the allspice flavor of the dry chicken, the elevated cover.
I actually also poured a little over the mac n cheese, which made a world of difference.
But as I dug deeper into the side edge, some of the macaroni pieces were almost mushy. Definitely not ‘good mood food’ as the menu suggested.
It was not far to eat these plates with pale sorrow that I got a stomach ache. My stomach punished me instantly for treating it with such disrespect.
I had to say though, the food was not disgusting. I certainly managed to eat a lot. It was just boring, nothing special.
Annoyingly, only after struggling through this dry and boring lunch did I realize that other tables had been given large bowls of sauces and spices with their food. Maybe that was where the world of taste hid?
I doubt it though. I just think there’s a big mistake in the way Tripadvisor’s list is created.
When you visit Turtle Bay, you come for the cheap cocktails that we know they excel at. So of course people will give them five stars for it.
Even if you could really enjoy eating here over a little booze – or when you’re close to being away from your face at a bottomless brunch so everything tastes great – most of those who review this place are purely here for to drink.
Therefore, the ratings of this Brixton branch ran up.
Even though I’m a Caribbean foodie, I think it’s pretty misleading that people are told this is a ‘go-to’ for the kitchen.
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London is a hugely diverse city, and especially in Brixton there are a wide variety of places where you will find some authentic dishes.
If you are looking for Caribbean food, it is not worth disappointing your taste buds by going to Turtle Bay, try some of our own recommendations.
Try mini-London chains like Rudies Jerk Cottage across town to eat street food, or join the Jamaican Patty Co. in the central.
Another place that is worth a visit is definitely Roti Joupa- de makes proper roti and it is the next on my list. You can find them most easily on Uber Eats and Deliveroo.
Turtle Bay is for drinks and some drunken Caribbean food, it’s time to get them off the top spot.
Go here if you want a tasteless snack with a side of sadness to take with your drinks. If you actually want to pamper a sense of taste, go somewhere else.
Do you have a favorite hidden gem restaurant that you think our readers would like to know about? In that case, send an email to [email protected]