Ikoyi, one of the city’s most innovative and captivating Michelin-starred restaurants, has detailed how it will return after nearly four months of closure. Iré Hassan-Odukale and Jeremy Chan have told Eater that when the restaurant reopens in St James’s Market on 17 July, there will be no tasting menus. It will employ a more casual approach, delivery and collection will be introduced, staff will work fewer hours, and both the kitchen and dining room will operate with a suite of new safety measures in place.
Although there was a feeling of panic at the beginning of lockdown, Ikoyi’s owners said that the period has ultimately given them some “fresh air” after a far from straightforward journey, going from near closure to winning a Michelin star in a matter of months. They acknowledged that after the pressure of running a highly conceptual central London fine dining restaurant over the last three years, the past four months have been a “welcome break.”
The new menu
The restaurant, which won a Michelin star in 2019, was known for its creative and conceptual reinterpretations of traditional West African dishes, preparations, and ingredients: plantain with scotch bonnet; smoked crab jollof rice; mushroom suya; and chicken efo were signature dishes which might feature on the chef’s 10-course tasting menu. For now, the meandering, multi-course experience is off the table. “We felt it would be aggressive to just go back to what we were doing before,” Chan said. Instead, the restaurant will reopen with a much shorter a la carte offering “designed to nourish our guests, warmly welcoming them back into eating out.”
They say the new menu will retain the essence of Ikoyi — “hyper seasonal produce, spice and big flavours” — while leaning on comfort and familiarity, an organic response to how they feel and what they think their guests will want after nearly four months of cooking and eating at home. “We’re trying to engage with what we feel people will want as they ease back into dining [out],” Chan said.
A sample menu includes dishes like fried chicken with beef fat and hot sauce; beef rib suya; monkfish curry; and overripe plantain with spiced ginger. There’ll also be bowls of smoky jollof rice with the option of different toppings like aged sheep kebab, crab custard, or flame beets, fresh salads, and homemade cookies.
“Our menu shows that everyone has changed and we’ve changed a bit,” Chan said.
Opening hours: Dinner, Tuesday — Saturday, 5.30 to 9.30 p.m.
Takeaway, collection, and delivery
Hassan-Odukale and Chan admitted they don’t yet know what delivery or takeaway is going to look like, nor what the demand for it will be like once the restaurant reopens. It’s the debut for a model designed to mitigate the effects of a second lockdown, which they recognise as a plausible scenario in the winter.
The menu had to be a takeaway and delivery friendly hybrid, and has taken months of planning, Chan said. It was their hope that they would be able to maintain demand for an in-restaurant customer base, otherwise they risked becoming not a restaurant, but “a food service,” which is not something the owners ever envisaged.
Delivery and collection: Tuesday — Sunday, 5.30 to 9.30 p.m.
The lean staff of 15 or 16 members, which had shrunk because of departures before lockdown, has been furloughed for the period of closure. All will be able to return once the restaurant reopens, though because of reduced capacity (cover numbers will go from 32 to 25 with one metre distancing in place), they will work fewer hours and have wages topped up through the government’s flexible furlough scheme.
If the restaurant had returned without the delivery and takeaway model alongside the dine-in operation, if another lockdown occurred, the team would not have been retained, nor “could it have coped,” Chan said.
Customers and a new reality
Chan says that the new menu is not a “casual ‘get-the-covers-in’” effort, but something that is designed to offer food that “makes guests feel good, and which isn’t too intellectually challenging.”
The other critical consideration — which is a shared reality for fine-dining restaurants in the city — is that the customer who visits now will be different from the customer who visited before. In the short- and medium-term in the absence of a reopening of tourism, “we’ve lost our international clientele — from China and Europe,” Chan said. Hassan-Odukale added that the menu had to appeal to local customers now, and not just those who would visit for a special occasion. “We had to make it as accessible as possible to bring Londoners back to central London,” he said.
It also has to be more affordable — comparatively, given Ikoyi’s expensive location in the centre of the city. Chan described the new approach as “an understanding of the times and a reflection of people having less money.” As well as needing to draw guests from the locales they’ve become fixed to in lockdown, there is also a question mark hanging over when workers will return to offices in central London.
“It would have been selfish and egotistical to start straight off the bat with a 10-course tasting menu — and it would put people off. That’s not what we want to go out and eat right now,” Chan added.
The rent question
Hassan-Odukale and Chan say that they have been fortunate with a landlord, The Crown Estate, which has been “really helpful” and given them “space to breathe.” They have been given a rent-free period for the months of April, May, and June, while negotiations are ongoing about what happens with the next quarter. “Central London is so dead — no one knows what’s going to happen, so landlords have to weigh that up,” Chan said.
Ultimately, a rent-free solution doesn’t work long-term, not just because landlords won’t sanction it, but also because relying on that would mean “you don’t have a viable business,” Chan conceded.
As well as following guidelines on social distancing (removing tables and reducing the capacity from 32 to 25) and hand washing, all team members will have their temperatures logged daily and will wear masks during preparation, set-up, and service.
In addition to the available hand-sanitiser and as “a courtesy to others”, guests will be provided with a mask, which they will be asked to wear when moving around the restaurant.
Both Hassan-Odukale and Chan admit that adjusting to the new more “sterile” reality in the restaurant will take time and that standards could be difficult to satisfy when government safety guidance is vague and open to interpretation. One restaurant’s idea of Covid-secure could be different to another’s, and the customer’s standard could be shaped by whichever they experience first. Or indeed vice versa.
They do hope that good operators will integrate new safety practices into what will gradually become an everyday experience, eventually moving away from an emphasis on safety measures with explicit language. The hope is that distancing and sanitising become “second-nature: ... People need to build good habits and trust restaurants to look after their guests,” Chan said.
Before then, Hassan-Odukale added, “people need to get comfortable.”