A new West African-inspired restaurant offers adventurous – and delicious – dishes
Michael Deacon at Ikoyi in central London
I WAS BORN in 1980. Far too late. I really should have got around to it sooner. Somewhere around 1945, ideally. That was the time to be born. Certainly for a journalist.
By being born around 1945, I would have ensured that I spent the peak years of my career in the 1980s. And the 1980s, it ’s now clear, were the golden years of journalism. Not necessarily in terms of quality, but certainly in terms of perks, booze and idling. Which are, after all, the three main reasons anyone enters journalism.
‘When I started at The Times in 1981, overmanning and slack output were prodigious,’ beams Bill Bryson, in Notes
from a Small Island. He and his fellow sub editors would ‘wander in’ around 2.30pm, and then ‘spend most of the afternoon reading the evening papers and drinking tea while waiting for the reporters to surmount the daily challenge of finding their way back to their desks after a three-hour lunch involving several bottles of jolly decent Châteauneuf-du-pape... At about half-past five, we would engage in a little light subbing for an hour or so, then slip our arms into our coats and go home. It seemed very agreeably unlike work.’
Bryson and his colleagues were wellpaid – mainly for work they didn’t actually do. One of them showed him how to fake an expenses claim. No receipts or other evidence were required – you simply filled in a form and in return were handed however much you’d pretended to have sp ent: £100, £300,
£500. Hardly anyone, it seems, got rumbled. In fact, you were more likely to get in trouble for claiming too little – as Lynn Barber found, when she joined the Sunday Express in 1982.
‘The first time I ever filled out an expenses form, the deputy editor told me it was “pathetic”,’ she recalls in her memoir, An Education. ‘What did I mean travelling second-class on the train or, worse still, by Tube – didn’t I know that [union] regulations meant we were only allowed first-class train travel and taxis?’
God. That must have been the life. It ’s nothing like that now. Lunch is at your desk, we’re all wretchedly sober, and every claim for ‘entertaining a contact’ must be accompanied by a 5,000word statement justifying the outlay, testimonies by two independent eyewitnesses, and CCTV footage of you handing the waiter your debit card.
There is one area of journali sm, though, in which it ’s more fun to b e worki ng n ow th a n th e n . And that area, fortunately for me, is restaurant reviewing.
In the 1980s, the British ate out far le ss (unle ss, I supp os e, they were reporters enjoying several bottles of jolly decent Châteauneuf- du-pape). And, when they did eat out, they had far less to choose from. Now, by contrast, Britain has restaurants of unprecedented variety. Every cuisine in the world is represented. The critics of the 1980s could never have dreamt of it, as they trudged from one weary trattoria to the next. Those of us reviewing for the papers today are nowhere near as influential as our predecessors, now that we have to compete with TripAdvisor and Instagram. But at least we get to eat better.
This week’s restaurant is a perfect example. Ikoyi, in central London. West African-inspired fine dining. It’s new, it’s different, and it’s terrific.
It ’s been opened by two friends in their early 30s, Iré Hassan- Odukale (born in Nigeria) and Jeremy Chan (Chinese- Canadian). The menu is short . Snacks to begin. First, the ‘chicken oyster ’: a single mouthful of chicken, scooped up in a leaf and downed in one, with a tingling afterburn of pepper. Like doing a shot, but of meat.
Then, butter milk plantain: a lurid pink banana, covered in Scotch bonnet, a spice that threatened to torch the tonsils, but was cooled just enough by the accompanying mayonnaise to let the plantain sweetness seep through.
Next, octopus pepper soup: a thick chompy tentacle in a glistening oily broth. Good, but much better was the Manx Loaghtan rib, which was voluptuously succulent. The Manx Loaghtan
There’s a fair bit of spice, but it’s not a blazing furnace of heat. More a low-level glow
is a rare breed of sheep with four horns, found not in West Africa but on the Isle of Man, but here it’s prepared in a Nigerian style, with a tickly ‘asun relish’. As you’ll have noticed by now, there’s a fair bit of spice on the menu, but, scotch bonnet aside, it’s not a blazing furnace of heat. More a low-level glow. Embers smouldering.
For main: iberico suya, a cartoonishly large hunk of pork that went perfectly with the side of jollof rice and smoked bone marrow. Also the chicken, perhaps the least interesting dish here, but still unimpeachably tender, and served with okra.
Two puddings. The ‘coffee, roasted cumin and uda cookie’ was dark and seductive, but my favourite was the ‘zobo papaya, paradise meringue and buttermilk’: lusciously juicy and shiveringly sweet.
I liked the food at Ikoyi a lot. Vivid, imaginative, immaculately cooked, generous but not overfilling. Another reminder of how much eating out has changed in this country, how much more adventurous it’s grown, and how much better.
If reporters still had the time to go out for lunch, and a spare £100 from some fiddled expenses, this is where I’d tell them to go.
Above Iberico suya and hibiscus mayo. Below A special on the Ikoyi menu, featuring tuna belly and raw okra and red-pepper soup