In the early 2000s, I rented a bedroom just off Clapham Common. It was grubby and had likely been used as a brothel at some point in the late ‘90s. The dirty curtains and cheap carpet left much to be desired, but there was magic in that room.
If you opened the door to my wardrobe, and looked past the layers of jeans and jumpers, you would find an opening which led to a ‘70s bathroom, resplendent with orange tiles and sunken bath. Anyone who visited was taken by it, one friend ventured in with a cocktail for so long I forgot she was in there.
So, it was with a mix of trepidation and excitement that I pushed my way through the fur coats in Jo & Co’s seasonal Narnia-themed doorway during the closing chapters of last year.
But as the co-owner Mr Tumnus bounded over to greet us, we happily discovered Narnia had thawed, heated up by something more akin to Club Tropicana. The décor was the right side of kitsch and the music was the right side of the ‘80s. From behind the bar we could hear milk being frothed for cappuccinos and ice cubes begging to be liberated from their cocktail shaker prisons.
Our table was near the atrium where the winter sun fell through a full-width glass ceiling. I was drawn to a Dark & Spiky (their take on a Dark & Stormy) and was thrilled to find that the addition of pineapple lifted the whole ensemble from sultry evening drink to a brighter, more brunchy affair.
Some greens seemed wise and a small asparagus, broccoli and halloumi salad almost ordered itself. It came on a bed of spinach and the chef had clearly been taking lessons from my Great Aunt. She taught me very early on, through the medium of a prawn cocktail, that no one wants the leafy bits. These are merely a vehicle to get the main event into your mouth, so pony up the good stuff and go easy on the leaves.
The ratio here was spot on. Griddled courgettes added a bitter sweet yet soft element to the whole. I’m not crazy about spinach which hasn’t been whipped into something that doesn’t taste of spinach but somehow it worked. An abundance of buttery toasted pine nuts and a calming yogurt dressing probably helped. I could, maybe should, have stopped there, but the final sip of my cocktail acted as a gingery palette cleanser so I set my sights on some slow-cooked BBQ beef hash. The beef was melt-in-the-mouth with a cumin-laced BBQ moistness that really woke up my tastebuds. The beef sat between a poached egg and cubes of fried potato which acted as sauce and mop respectively.
After demolishing the lot, I found myself in the astonishing position of having ordered ketchup – an automatic reflex when potato is involved – and not touching it once.
I was loathe to leave because I genuinely felt relaxed and in good company. The staff seemed as happy to be there as our fellow diners and that warm buzz acted as a balm to my previously hectic week. But we left through the wardrobe whence we came, back to the smell of sea air and a world that seemed much happier that the one we’d left. As I popped the sweet, minty Jo & Co Brighton Rock I’d been gifted into my mouth, I couldn’t help but wonder whether my cocktail-wielding friend had returned from my bathroom that night with a square of Turkish Delight in hers. I do hope so.
Jo & Co, 115 Church Road, Hove, BN3 2AF