Market Leader

South American street food, reasonable prices and willing smiles – Gareth Mason is still looking for the catch...

When Richard Bigg went backpacking around South America, he liked the food so much he brought it home with him. Figuratively, of course, a fact embodied in Market Place, a West End bar specialising in Latin American street food.  

Open since the new year, Market Place is the third venture for Bigg and co-owner Nigel Foster who also run the musically-infused Shoreditch-based bar restaurants Cantaloupe and Cargo. It’s found just off Oxford Street on two floors of an Edwardian building constructed with large expanses of glass and wood.

Though busy on our midweek visit, there was room to breathe, if not sit down. This is one element of street food transported too literally but after brief bar-leaning duty, a table duly emerged. The smaller upstairs bar is ideal for dropping-in – more committed visitors find their way through big, swinging wooden doors to the basement.

Here a scattering of small tables leads to a couple of low-arched alcoves at the far end with the bar running between that and the DJ’s decks. As upstairs, the decor’s best remembered for its floorboards, slatted wood walls and banquette benches. Low-lit bulbs and wall-mounted candles fit the below stairs feel. 

The crowd was fairly 18-30 but looking more for fun than their reflections. Customers came in groups of all shapes and sizes, a point extravagantly made by the brief appearance of three exceptionally small men in suits and a man at the bar so large he appeared, literally, to be propping it up.

Our evening’s soundtrack unfolded from an opening rumble of reggae through to jazz, soul, world and ambient. Music is an integral part of any Cantaloupe production and Market Place looks like a friendly pre-club venue. With slightly longer hours here, you could do worse than skip the club altogether.

With friends, Maria and Emma, we ordered from a menu numbering 26 dishes from 10 countries averaging around £4 each. The Latin theme extends beyond South America to Portugal, Spain, Cuba and Mexico. An appetite guide even translates hunger into dishes: ‘lightly peckish’ recommends one to two dishes while ‘plain greedy’ would demand five to eight.

We had fried crisp-like slices of plaintain from Brazil, chargrilled swordfish with a mango and avocado salsa and mixed salad from Cuba, chicken peri-peri from Portugal, and baked stuffed quesadillas (tortillas) from Mexico. Pumpkin soup, pork meatballs, steamed mussels and chargrilled sardines went, I regret, untested.

By its nature, food like this shouldn’t be long in the making though most stall-holders in Latin America don’t have the distraction of 200 thirsty Londoners demanding fine wines and strong beer. So we were impressed to be served in under ten minutes.

Some might miss the dribbles of excess fat down their chins, or that surplus handful of fine-sliced cabbage festooning your shirt, but here you get a sanitised version of what you might find on the streets of Lima and Medellin without the worry of whether your lily-livered western stomach could deal with it.

All things of the flesh were crisp and succulent while the dips were piquant and complementary without dominating the dish’s flavour. The mango and avocado salsa with the swordfish was a fine example.

Emma, our designated vegetarian, was happily upbeat about the coriander and cream which she spied with her quesadilla let alone the inclusion of melon, peanuts and olives in a fresh and colourful mixed salad. Fans of green salad – stay in your pastures. 

We moved into the ‘bar’ phase of the review with none of the usual ‘last orders’ frenzy of our lager in a cold climate culture. Open from 11–1am from Monday to Saturday and noon to 10.30pm on Sundays, there’s a latin appreciation of quantity, as well as quality, drinking time.
Market Place has 20-odd wines on offer from a £10 Cuvee du Baron in red and white to a £24 Pino Nero. Most are available by the glass (from £2.60) like the ‘big, fat and aromatic’ Viognier Les Jamelles or a ‘youthful and abundant Spaniard’ in the form of Vina Rey Tempranillo.

A lonely trio of draft beers contrasts a Budvar, Guinness and Weissbier while the geographical boundaries are extended yet further with Tiger and Cruzcampo bottled beers with a chilled Sake found propping up the menu.

Good measures in the cocktails (50ml for £5.50) covered half a dozen varieties, from that dangerous Brazilian seducer Caipirinha, to Raspberry Daiquiri. Only Rude Cosmo made the barest effort to sound like a sexual act.

But there was something about the evening which suggested a rum line of attack and with a barman eager for me to experiment it was hard to turn back. Maria, a veteran of South America, became misty-eyed at the mere sight of the Cuba Libre put before her.

Which brings us to service. Asking for a rum here may be as vague a question as ordering a Scotch in the highlands. But rather than provoking contempt my ignorance merely set off the cheery barman’s enthusiasm to spread the spiritual word.

And he wasn’t a rogue smiler. All evening, tell-tale flashing teeth could be glimpsed across the faces of fast-moving staff as they made sense of the surrounding chaos. And it wasn’t the psychotically polite mien of a New York waiter, it seemed quite genuine. I only just resisted a Sally Field: ‘You really like me,’ moment.

Recently, I failed to get a pub lunch in central London because I couldn’t get an answer on how long it would take to make. ‘How long is a piece of string?’ was the closest I got to useful response. He was so pleased with his philosophical wit that he repeated it with empty-headed smugness each time I patiently rephrased my question. Justice will perhaps be done in people voting with their shoes.

This should make the path to market Place a well trod one. We can only hope it continues to dare to be different.

Fashionline 2002