Experiencing Ikoyi London, the purveyor of Nigerian fine dining
Wifey and I finally made that trip to “touristy” London to visit Ikoyi, a restaurant I had read about a few times in various prestigious London newspapers and other publications. Admittedly what I had read about did not move me but in a rather curious and strange way the London buzz surrounding this restaurant made me want to experience it. I guess restauranteurs spend a fortune creating that buzz with doubting Thomases like me in mind. My gripe was this. From all indications Ikoyi was birthed as a “fine dining” African or more specifically Nigerian restaurant. I have no issues with fine dining but “fine dining” mentioned in the same sentence or breath as African food raises my eyebrows so high I might as well have it sticky taped to my forehead. The thing is, I don’t think Africans do small portions and fussy arrangements of food on plate! I know my food. I also know Africans. We may come in varying degrees of “black”, speak all sorts of languages and call on a hundred gods but we have this in common. Our food needs to be good and it needs to be heavy! The sun probably has something to do with it. Nibbling on small portions of food just doesn’t cut it in the baking sun. We need nourishment and lots of eat just to walk never mind work. I wouldn’t necessarily equate fine dining with good food either. Perhaps I’ve seen too many social media memes about “fine dining” that had unconsciously turned me off anything that looked remotely like two grains on a plate masquerading as a rice dish at a price that could certainly feed a small village in my hometown. Scary given that hometown is Accra. From chop bars or bukas to some incredibly high end restaurants, I had never come across any marketing itself as the home of fine dining African food. Surely there must be a reason for that or are our restauranteurs simply missing a trick? Or more likely is Ikoyi one of those restaurants touting itself as African or Nigerian but perhaps so watered down and “Westernised” that the owners perhaps need to be publicly flogged for having the audacity to call their restaurant Ikoyi, the most Naija of names?
Anyway, on an extremely cold London afternoon I put my misgivings and stereotypes to one side as I headed to Ikoyi for lunch. The location was as posh as I’m sure it is expensive to rent. This afterall was only a couple of minutes away from London’s famous Piccadilly Circus, the heart of entertainment in the West End of London. Walking through Jermyn street, a street dedicated to fine clothing for the finest of English gentlemen and dates back 1664 only heightened my anticipation to what I’d encounter at Ikoyi.
My wife had gone ahead of me from work. The London chill tore through my bones as my google map app got me to my destination. I completely ignored offers to take my coat at the door at Ikoyi. I was in survival first mode. I headed straight to where she was sat in a vain attempt to somehow ward of the cold by taking my seat. As if that works! A quick look around and I knew I had to go back to hand my coat in. It belonged to the clock room; not hanged at the back of my seat. It was that kind of a place and as casual as I am, even I had to tow the line.
It’s only at the first encounter that a restaurant makes its full impression on us. Amidst the dash to get seated I had unwittingly experienced a sea of smiling faces (including a slightly built brother I suspect I had read about as the other half of Ikoyi). Truth be told I had ignored those smiles. I had failed to acknowledge them or respond with my own full on 32 smiling back but they did not hold it against me. The smiles and friendliness shot right back at me with even less uncertainty when I went back to hand my coat in. This was a stunning first impression certainly not to be confused with love at first sight but certainly it was an invitation to consider. At this time I did not know what to expect. All I knew was that here I was sat in an incredibly cute and intimate space with other diners in a plush part of London the rest of the world pay a fortune to come and see. As I warmed up a little I began to notice things. First was the lighting or rather the pendant lights. I couldn’t exactly get my microscope out to examine them or risk being seen trying to feel the texture of them but they looked like they were made of clay. Very cool.
Next and before I could protest, my wife had already made conversation with a couple of diners sat next to us. She had asked what the jollof rice was like. “Great” came the reply from our neighbours. I suspected they were Southern Africans; she thought they were East Africans. Either way I remember thinking – what will they know about jollof rice anyway?! I am Ghanaian and so is my wife. This is the situation we find ourselves in. We are both sat in a Nigerian restaurant considering having Nigerian jollof rice. As if that wasn’t sacrilegious enough the menu described the Jollof rice as “smokey”, the very taste Ghanaians generally dislike. At risk of causing an international faux pas we proudly and boldly decided to venture onto the “dark side” anyway. We were going to have the smokey Nigerian jollof rice on their lunch menu! Before then, we ordered our starters which were two lots of the Buttermilk Plantain & Smoked Scotch Bonnet.
At first glance I wondered where the plantain was. I can confidently tell you 99.99 percent of West Africans eat plantain in its assorted fried, grilled and boiled forms and stages of ripeness regularly but I could also tell you I’m sure a figure enormously greater than that 99.99 percent have not had plantain bathed in that much red of anything. This was fiery stuff though which immediately made me think. Could this thing with Ikoyi end up badly? Could I get out of here with my much prized box of misgivings and stereotypes being tossed in the Thames, which incidentally was not too far away? I mean this was my kind of heat! I took one bite and completely forgot about my opinions on “fine dining” and African food. That amber coloured sauce too. I could lick that off my spoon all day! The closest I would describe this was that it was a bit like kelewele but 10 times more special. I was taking very small bites in a vain and futile attempt to preserve the life of my plantain starter. In the end sheer frustration got the better of me. I just woofed the damn things and sneakily proceeded to scoop what was left of the sauce on my wife’s plate. The heat I understand comes from the mayo sauce. Apparently they burn the scotch bonnets until they are black and then infuse them in oil for 48 hours, then they emulsify them into a kind of mayonnaise. Here I was thinking the red on the plantain must have been the “culprit.”
Straying onto plates. There is something incredibly caveman like eating meals out of rustic earthenware. Africa is naturally rustic and without a single stereotypically African decor I could still feel contemporary Africa in this place. It has an intimate, hipster-ish (the London way), cosmopolitan design, only very distantly recognisable as new Naija if at all. There’s a tiny open kitchen, which is OK by London standards and an understated bar with a few high stools arranged in front of it. We sat in the coolest corner of Ikoyi, the bit that gave you the choice of a sofa or a proper chair. I opted for the proper chair. Wifey had other ideas.
We ordered two cocktails. Mine was the cassava sour. This was almost as frustrating to drink as the plantain starter was to nibble on. I did, because I think it did pack a bit of a punch, managed to drag it out for a while. I think I succeeded with this one. It was lunch after all and I had to go back to work.
Finally the smokey jollof was ordered. It arrived in no time. I have to be very careful here. Not because we didn’t enjoy the jolof rice but because we both have to show our faces in Ghana at some point. The best way of describing this without stepping on Ghanaian sensibilities is to put it this way. This was a rendition of our collective West African pride and joy. It was like being invited to a wine tasting session and being asked to taste wine from a region that just by virtue of their climate and soil have come up with the finest wine but which you know you can never produce. It doesn’t make it better or worse than yours; just different and just as delicious. The thing about this jollof rice though is this. Something made it a cut above even some of the best West African jollof rice I’ve tasted. It didn’t come with the ubiquitous red stew and slices of beef and chicken. It came fully armed to impress with things like smoked bone marrow. Ours came with what I thought was some kind of beans medley and what seemed to me like some kind of slices of greenery with purple colouring.
At this point Ikoyi was seriously tugging at my heart strings, playing me like a violin. I was being serenaded without my permission. Not quite in a way Fella would do it but more subtly like I’d imagine Chimamanda would. Prose by prose. Dessert was going to make or break this “by force” wooing. Part of me wanted to succumb but that would mean I’d have to eat humble pie! The whole African food and fine dining thing would have to be re-examined. No, not moi! I had to resist.
Anyway, we ordered our dessert. She went for the Kent mango, ogbono and butter milk and I went for the groundnut and zobo. In all honesty the dessert, and I greedily had mine and half of hers, turned out to be the pièce de résistance of the afternoon for me.
Simply some of the best dessert I had had and this from a guy who is on a mission to visit the top 10 dessert restaurants in the world. Hafiz Mustafa 1864, Pastéis de Belém and Patisserie Valerie to mention a few had already been conquered. However, I’d put all things taste aside for something a bit more profoundly important here. The ingredients for both our desserts originated from West Africa. This was no vanilla cake or red velvet this and that. This was mango, ogbono and butter milk. This was groundnut zobo. Most West Africans will know zobo as a drink. Here I was, having it as dessert alongside groundnut. Now Ikoyi was talking! Now Ikoyi was going for the home run! Now Ikoyi was not being suggestive but closing the deal and I was too impressed to resist. Such creativity is what to me defines Ikoyi and finally (yes finally) seals my love for this restaurant. That Ikoyi is located in a great part of London is a plus; that Ikoyi has incredible staff who will look after your every whim is another plus; that for once other West Africans can eat Nigerian jollof rice like its thier own is yet another plus; that the space is marvellously designed with every detail taken on its own merit is a big plus, but that Ikoyi proved to me to be authentic shatters a few myths. Maybe, just maybe this African with a penchant for good African food may just begin to see mentions of African food and “fine dining” in the same sentence as quite natural. More importantly any African restaurant that makes the effort to source typically African spices and ingredients such as grains of selim, ehuru (African nutmeg) and peppercorns from the Gola rain forest in Sierra Leone to mention a couple and in thier own words “combine bold heat and umami” in their creations needs to be celebrated. My surname is not Dangote so Ikoyi will not be my local.
My local chop bar as we call them in Ghana or Buka in Nigeria (low end restaurants and certainly non-fine dining) in my beloved Colindale and Accra are not being jilted anytime soon but once in a while a little cheating with Ikoyi with the Mrs or a business partner in tow won’t hurt. That’s probably a good thing. With a cover capacity of 48 if “me” and “wanna boys” storm the place too often and with our “loudness” the “plenty oyibo I was seeing there” will disappear fast. As it is Ikoyi will reach out to folks that most African restaurants couldn’t. That is a good thing if we are to promote and make the world sit up and even dare hope they celebrate or at the very least notice that African cuisine “too dey!” then we need the Ikoyis of this world to spice things up a little!
By the time we ventured back to hand in our tickets for our coats, we felt as if we’d been taken on a journey: from Nigeria and by extension West Africa, miles and miles across the Atlantic to the West End of London – blimey! – all the way to some sempiternally rustic African spot that had just won us both over with sheer creativity and an unexpected degree of authenticity.
Opening times 12.00pm – 3.00pm Monday to Saturday
6.00pm – 11.00pm Monday to Saturday
3.30pm – 5.00pm (Snacks & drinks) Saturday
1 St James’s Market, St James’s Market, Central London, SW1Y 4AH