‘Only the hardest heart couldn’t warm to this’
Restaurant criticism, a little like black pudding, does not benefit from close scrutiny as to its beginnings. How I choose which restaurants to sprinkle my own brand of fairy dust on is the question I’m asked most, but the answer rarely pleases. It’s complex, fickle, flighty.
Ikoyi, for example, named after an affluent district of Lagos, has pirouetted around my “should go” list for at least six months, tumbling downwards into the “distracted by shinier, newer things” pile, before rallying upwards again via another food scenester’s tip. People who love food, or rather the food scene, have certainly taken to Ikoyi.
But in my heart, I suppose, I knew before setting a slingback in this pricey, West African-influenced, hyper-modern fine-dining restaurant that it would be a complex affair to sell. Because Ikoyi is not a “West African restaurant” with which one could confidently chivvy people with links to Burkina Faso or Guinea-Bissau and say, “I’ve got just the place for you.”
There’s a chance they might spy, say, the two delicate pieces of plantain festooned with vividly cerise dehydrated raspberry powder on a plate for £5.50 and ask, churlishly, “What fresh hell is this?” Furthermore, if West African cuisine is a blind spot to you, and your first dalliance with northern Nigerian cooking is Ikoyi’s version of dambu nama (a fuzzy, addictive dried beef floss), you might end up more confused than before. Neither of my worries are criticisms, merely pointers. Ikoyi would feel peculiar, challenging and unique whether you were from Nigeria or Nantwich.
That dambu nama, for example, is made from longhorn beef and comes atop a delicate tartlet of whipped bone marrow pancake not much bigger than a 50p piece. Ikoyi is Lagos via the Ledbury. Chef Jeremy Chan and his business partner Ire Hassan-Odukele employ West African ingredients – scotch bonnet, grains of selim, ndolé leaves – to bring new life to very British things such as Exmoor caviar, Orkney scallops and wild Scottish turbot. They serve this mashup of
tribute, innovation and cultural trickiness in a pale, minimal, modern room while playing Warren G’s Regulate and Blue Lights by Jorja Smith. The staff deliver it all brightly and politely.
Only the hardest heart couldn’t warm to all this. Although, of course, that hard heart might then go on to quibble about the authenticity of the jollof rice’s stock, which contains shiitake mushrooms, katsuobushi and kombu, and that it is a crab jollof featuring apple, sorrel chives and coriander. But perhaps that’s part of the fun, because, like most important dishes, people have been quibbling over jollof – the regional ownership, the ingredients – twice daily since the Kingdom of Jollof’s emergence circa 1549.
We tore through £200 in less than two hours. It’s very easy to do. This is a 40-seater restaurant in London’s St James’s Market development, a loveless, purposebuilt £450m business and retail crevice close to Regent Street. When Rihanna said she “found love in a hopeless place”, I can only imagine she snogged someone in Aquavit or one of the other ventures that took big-money backing and now reside here.
Ikoyi’s stand-out dish for me, at £14, was a perfect, albeit small, rich disc of malted barley dough, not dissimilar to a souped-up slice of Soreen, topped with mushroom suya – or, to describe it more accurately, a pine-infused pile of earthy morel, miso and yaji ragú with an emulsion of pine and kumquat. The turbot (which is painfully fashionable right now – in fact, merely saying “turbot” makes you more relevant) comes on the bone with a squid-ink sauce, okra, steamed onions and sea beets. A plate of barely grilled duck arrived on an uda-infused, smoked candied bacon sauce strewn with sour camomile onions and cassava. We drank a bottle of the house red – Tinto Prunus 2015 – and puzzled our way through each delivery. The Kent mango, ogbono and buttermilk pudding is a slice of perfect parfait shaped like a credit card. It’s one of the nicest things I’ve put in my mouth this year.
Ikoyi, six months after opening, is one of the most damning things a restaurant can be: not always delicious, certainly dear, but clearly important. If West-African cuisine is close to your heart, your boundaries will be tested beautifully. If, on the other hand, you’ve missed the past 3,000 years, there’s no better place to jump in than here.