Fooled by Asafo restaurant and bar in Streatham, London
Asafo restaurant and bar in Streatham, South London was the location of a rendezvous with five brothers in Christ, one of whom, Uncle Leke, a personification of gentleness, was celebrating his birthday. It was on a chilly Tuesday evening and we had made plans to have dinner at a local popular Thai restaurant in the centre of bohemian Brixton, a cosmopolitan South London district. The chill suddenly got a couple of my brothers craving something with a bit more warmth. Mind you, it could just have been a fear of unknown Thai and Thailand. Some folks have a worrying knack of seeing visions of Lady boys where none exist. At least not in South London as far as I know. Anyway, in this most Africanised part of London, an African meal was the obvious choice for a hearty meal. A couple of phone calls later and those in the know had made two recommendations.
Asafo restaurant and bar was one of them and since it was only a 10 minute drive away from Brixton tube station and with hunger pangs wreaking havoc It was the obvious choice. The facade of the restaurant was unimpressive. Perhaps others would describe it more kindly as simple and unpretentious. The interior did not exactly inspire much wows either. It was small but not claustrophobic. The hard wooden tables and chairs reminded me of the sort of furniture found in class rooms in Accra, where I grew up. There was a bar so small that I had to strain my eyes to see it. The solo waiter was friendly and helped join two tables together to accommodate our tiny and scrawny selves, well with one exception (He assures us he is working on it – no carbs after 6 et all). A couple of minutes later I heard a diner shout across the restaurant for replenishment. I had to do a double take as I looked in his direction. I was, it felt like, in a chop bar masquerading as a restaurant. A chop bar for those in the know is where you go to for the most local, delicious but seriously unrefined dining experience on the streets of Accra and elsewhere in Ghana. It was where you sneaked into, in my case as a young teenager, if you felt streetwise enough but would never dare mention it to your parents for fear they’d think you were in apprenticeship to become a street hawker or a tro tro driver.
Mr Solo Waiter finally came round.
“We don’t have” became his favourite mantra as we asked about “Akonfem” (roast Guinea Fowl) and chichinga (roast meat on skewers). Not a great start Asafo! There was one glaring highlight as I began to think if we should have just stuck with the Thai restaurant. The “graffitiesque” wall painting with African themes were a delight to gaze at, well almost feed on in fact.
We did eventually order kelewele and turkey tails as the hardest “Dadaba” (Mummy and Daddy’s boy) in our midst – Sir Rhys made Mr Solo Waiter promise he’d have our starters ready in 10 minutes. Mr Solo Waiter nodded halfheartedly with a wide grin that screamed “yeah right!” He suggested we order the mains as well, which we did without a grumble but with some appreciation for the tip.
The “Chofi” as turkey tailes are affectionately called in Ghana was a shocker. Nicely seasoned it was as authentic and delicious as any I had ever had. It was instantly turned into a ping pong ball as we pulled the plate from one opposite side of the table to the other as we raced to devour its contents. Accountant Kojo Presec had the best ping pong skills. Very nimble and fast hands despite the girth nicely decorated in a crisp white shirt. Next was the kelewele. Kelewele is an interesting side dish that feeds on TLC. It has to be treated with tender hands whilst it is cut into cube sized portions and infused with various spices, notably ginger and chilli pepper. The ripeness of the plantain to start with has to be just right – not over or under ripe – and this was just on the money, straddling both spectrums majestically. As we hurriedly dispatched the kelewele the ring leader, yes you guessed it, the best ping pong master, brother Kojo, whose choice it had been to dine at Asafo began to get some admiring looks. Begrudging at first as we were enjoying watching him squirm when Mr Solo Waiter started with his “We don’t have” mantra. Judgement had to be reserved until after the main meal but at this point we were all rooting for Asafo to bring it home safely. Incidentally, Asafo is the Fanti name for a military institution. Like a true Asafo this restaurant was fast looking like it had a “never say die spirit” of an Asafo regiment.
I ordered Banku with Okro soup whilst everybody else went for Banku with tilapia. My second choice would have been yam with egusi stew. My Okro stew was as slimy as I like it and the floating greens gave me a misplaced sense of eating the healthiest meal on the menu. That’s assuming the heavy banku that came with it was invincible. The grilled tilapia by all accounts was the star of the show. Uncle Leke who had never had banku and grilled tilapia before commented that the tilapia was well seasoned as I looked on in astonishment. I had never thought a non- Ghanaian could take to banku and tilapia as he did. I thought the taste of a typically African dish was only acquired over a course of, well possibly a lifetime if you were not born smelling it in the womb. Over the course of an evening that stereotype had been shattered or perhaps more accurately cracked, in part for me anyway. Mind you, Uncle Leke had an inbuilt advantage. He was an African of the Yoruba variety. Sir Rhys “expertly” announced rather boldly that a good grilled tilapia had to come of the bone easily which this did. Hmmm. The inner flesh had to be lilly white as well which this did.
By the end of the evening as sweets and toothpicks were given out by Mr Solo Waiter, to refresh breadths and deal with any stuck remnants in crevices, we had all come to the conclusion that Asafo restaurant and bar was no light weight. It had thoroughly fooled us by its simplicity and ordinariness in looks but what lay behind all that was heavy! It is like a beautiful plump woman built not for speed but for pure comfort! Strip or ignore Asafo’s lack of refinement and you would discover a holy grail that will keep you coming back more often than Oliver Twist. As Osofo Clayman, possibly the holiest man on earth, well certainly in London, and I took the Northern line back home and discussed how much we loved travelling and gallivanting we knew we’d had a wonderful time. An experience that will be repeated and ought to be tried by folks, Ghanaian or African or not, if you happen to be in South London! Asafo rocks!