At the end of 2017, Eater London published its round-up of all things restaurants. On the best newcomer list, a few, outstanding restaurants were lauded by more than one writer. Seafood darling Westerns Laundry, Bao founders’ modern Taiwanese XU, Shoreditch’s Thai-inspired Smoking Goat. And Ikoyi.
Co-owners Iré Hassan-Odukale and Jeremy Chan’s Ikoyi has been called a modern, or contemporary, “West African restaurant” in the media, by its landlord, and the restaurant’s own PR. Hassan-Odukale and Chan, however, appear to see this as an inaccurate and reductive — if necessary — simplification of a greater ambition: to place West African ingredients, flavours and references in the fine dining sphere; a sphere that has, up to now, unhelpfully and systemically overlooked the entire continent. In October 2018, Ikoyi earned its first Michelin star. That ambition — resolutely undimmed — is matched with execution.
Their singular approach and application of the principles of Jollof cuisine has brought engaged, energised reviews and praise to a restaurant that is no less ideological or ambitious than Smoking Goat or Kiln, no less brilliant a representation of London’s contemporary culinary culture than of-the-moment Brat, Sabor, and St Leonards. Compared to its contemporaries above and in the best newcomer list, though, it has flown — a little more quietly — under the radar.
Chan talks about creating Ikoyi’s “own cuisine,” where West African food is not elevated, but whose ingredients are selected to stock what he calls the restaurant’s “flavour pantry.” Ikoyi’s cuisine, he says, has been developed by analysing the flavour and aesthetics of those ingredients as “artefacts” — where they are shown great respect and where the kitchen applies an open-mindedness to culture. This, he says, “goes deeper than doing a play on a specific cuisine.” He insists that for all the talk of the restaurant being a modern West African restaurant, it is not, and never was, designed to offer anything like an “authentic experience.”
The big-money location, just off Piccadilly Circus, is what many regard as the very centre of the city; it is where tourists congregate to take photographs of illuminated Coca-Cola adverts; it is London’s Times Square. It is not, in other words, where restaurant-goers might expect to find something as new and innovative as Ikoyi. A lack of occupancy in adjacent office blocks and a downturn in the economy have hampered the “place-making” ambitions of the development; the location has under-served its tenants, with one restaurant closing and another acknowledging major struggles. And yet, Chan says there is no way he would rather be anywhere else. “We couldn’t have done this restaurant in any other city,” he says. And he relishes, the “cold, corporate, Bladerunner aesthetic” of the development itself.
One year after the restaurant’s opening, Eater visited Chan and Hassan-Odukale to go through the menu in its entirety; to explore the intricacies of food that has captured the capital’s imagination.
Plantain, raspberry salt, and smoked scotch bonnet
Probably the restaurant’s most instantly recognisable dish. Chan explains: “The dish is fried plantain with West African flours, an emulsion of oil infused with smoked chillies and shallots seasoned with dried raspberries.” It is crucial that the scotch bonnets, chillies and shallots are blackened on the grill before infusing in the oil, otherwise the heat and bitterness become overwhelming.
Cow skin sandwich
Cow skin is blended with its protein before being steamed, sliced and dried. The skin is then puffed in hot oil — much like a chicharron — before sandwiching beach herbs and pickled flowers on top of a pistachio emulsion.
Melon and beetroot
Sun sweet melon from Mantua, Italy is dressed with a crayfish salt, cured beetroot and a fresh walnut oil.
Tigernut mousse and caviar
Dried tubers are combined with milk spiced with uda peppercorn — a pepper that carries an intense, black cardamom flavour with the rawness of peppercorn and a tingling, sherbert-like quality. Caviar and smoked rapeseed oil finish the dish.
Suya is a Nigerian national dish and traditionally consists of meats marinated in a complex marinade called yaji, along with peanuts, onions and other spices. Ikoyi’s iteration stuffs roasted, malted barley bread with peanut butter miso, a crayfish yaji, shallots, caramelised mushrooms and lemon thyme. Bread is steamed before being grilled to order in smoked butter, alongside kumquats, a pine emulsion and whichever seasonal mushrooms are available that day.
Efo is traditionally a spinach and vegetable stew, here reimagined by Chan as the base to herb-fed chicken. The chicken is brined, slow cooked and grilled before being rested in citrus brown butter. Chan finishes the dish with iru, a sauce of fermented locust beans, cassava, kale salt and preserved lemon. The efo is referenced by a spinach and parsley sauce at the base of the dish.
Crab Jollof rice
Jollof rice iterates subtly from country to country, city to city, family to family: its specifics are crucial and the dish should not be glossed as a catch-all for West African cooking. Ikoyi’s version cooks down rice in a stock made from blackened vegetables and shellfish dashi, topped with a crabmeat salad and a custard of the brown crab. The whole thing is smoked to order.