Grace Dent

‘Only the hard­est heart couldn’t warm to this’

The Guardian - Feast - - Front Page - Grace Dent

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.

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