West Africa in London


Nick finds sophistication and West African ingredients in London's St James. 

Plantain, Raspberry Salt and Smoked Scotch Bonnet

Jerusalem Artichoke Moin Moin (steamed pudding), Razor Clam and Chicken Skin

Confit Hake, Turbot Bone and Peppercorn velouté, Kale and Cep

Cabbage, Turmeric Butter, Agbalumo (star apple) and Groundnut Chanterelles Sauce

Aged Beef Cured in Winter fruits, Red Carrot and Oxtail Maafe (peanut stew)

Black Olive Coconut Rice, Honey Cured Prawns and three-cornered Leek

Overripe Plantain, Malt Custard and Zobo (Hibiscus sabdariffa), Rhubarb

This was the six-course menu from the dinner that four of us very much enjoyed at Ikoyi, in St James’s Market just off London’s Haymarket recently. I am not quite sure about how this menu is presented. Obviously with great style, as is their small but astutely written cocktail list in small lettering on an orange card and their petite wine list that includes some fascinating bottles.

But I did not actually receive a menu. This is partly because of the restaurant’s policy. They offer a six- and nine-course tasting menu at dinner without letting the customer see, or even read, what he or she is going to eat. They usually hand over the menu as guests leave but in my case they forgot and I retrieved it later via their publicist. When I paid my bill of £433.13, the chef Jeremy Chan, a Hong Kong-born Chinese-Canadian, schooled at Wellington College in the UK and Princeton in the US, was surrounded at the pass by his pals as we left, so we did not get the opportunity to tell him how much we had enjoyed the meal. But now I can thank him, and Elaine Spooner of Lotus PR for doing her job so efficiently.

Ikoyi takes its name from the smart suburb of Lagos, the biggest city in Nigeria, the west African country that was home to Chan’s business partner, Iré Hassan-Odukale, whose mother is from Sierra Leone, as if another nationality into the mix were necessary.

While the culinary world is not short of extremely well-educated young men and women who have fallen for the restaurant business’s charms, not to mention its long hours, it was a West African theme, rare in London, that attracted these two friends who met while working in insurance. Hassan-Odukale’s family background in hospitality and Chan’s interest in cooking initially led to thoughts of a much less grand, more fast food approach to the cooking of Nigerian ingredients but after stints at Hibiscus, Noma and Dinner, Chan decided to aim much higher.

Ikoyi’s location may be slightly difficult to find but it is otherwise a perfect spot. It seats about 40 with an open kitchen in the corner so that Chan can watch everything that is going on. Its large plate-glass front window looks on to a pedestrianised street so that the first rule of any successful restaurant has been met: that what is inside the front door must match what is on the outside. Both are equally smart.

The interior is entirely composed of light wood, with the tables and very comfortable chairs and banquettes the same colour and overall high standard. The owners have worked with various ceramicists and artists and the former seem to have done an excellent job. However, the large painting on the wall was described by the Nigerian in our party as ‘ominous’. They have also used ceramic pendants for the light fittings that have been hung dangerously low over the tables. Do be careful when getting up if you are sitting under one of these.

We began with a round of cocktails, all of which included a clever, African twist. A cassava sour was made more pungent by the addition of the cassava juice and lemon and more attractive by the small glass in which it was served. The guava and apricot was a long drink while the Old Fashioned was given an extra swoosh by the addition of roasted plantain. With our food we drank a bottle of Clos de la Roilette Fleurie for £58 – a generous mark-up. And the £6 (plus service) that I was charged for each of the bottles of still and sparkling water stuck in my gullet, particularly since so many similar establishments provide unlimited filtered water free.

It was our first course that was to prove the hottest (in a spicy sense) as well as providing a lesson in geography and history. The thick purée Chan had made from Scotch bonnet peppers, traditionally the pepper of the Caribbean and something that has linked this region and West Africa for 300 years and more, was extremely hot. The grilled piece of plantain, topped with raspberry salt, was a colourful but essential partner. This was followed by a ‘moin moin’, a Nigerian word for a steamed pudding made from Jerusalem artichokes topped with a razor clam and a delightful piece of crisp chicken skin.

The second two courses were my favourites. The confit of hake with the turbot and peppercorn velouté and Cameroonian greens was Chan’s interpretation of ‘fish pepper soup’, the ubiquitous dish of West Africa. Here it was lighter, less peppery and one could enjoy the still-firm flesh of the confited hake. Then a slice of January king cabbage that had been steamed before being marked on the grill, its leaves interlaced with agbalumo or pieces of star apple. This was eye-catching, instructive as well as being delicious.

The slice of beef that was our main course, shown top right, was fine but it was the accompaniments that brought out the best in the kitchen. There was the carrot purée and the oxtail maafe, a kind of runny stew, that appealed most, as did the side dish of peppery coconut rice, peeled prawns and those three-cornered leeks shown below. 

With the dessert of overripe plantain, malt custard and Zobo rhubarb Chan reverted closest to the norm of an ultra-sweet collation of flavours, albeit given a liveliness with the addition of the rhubarb, acidified with the Zobo plant or roselle.

Chan is obviously a highly talented chef and Ikoyi obviously has wide appeal, from a table of young men drinking a large bottle of Star beer (Nigeria’s most popular beer) and a much higher African presence than is common in most restaurants in London’s West End.

But I would prefer a bit more chaos, Nigerian style.

Ikoyi Unit 1, 1 St James’s Market, London SW1Y 4AH; tel +44 (0)20 3583 4660