Ikoyi, London: A Walk On The Wild Side
How do you convince a city whose palates are so deeply entrenched in the comforts of chip shops and greasy spoons that they should pay 60 quid for a West African-inspired tasting menu? Conquering social media with superbly instagrammable dishes is a good start. With smartphone cameras shining the spotlight on this dynamic eatery, Tuesday saw a healthy flow of customers through the door—a voice scan of languages in the room revealing a proportionate amount of foreigners to locals. Elegant restraint and bold colour contrast are the design brief here, a fierce juxtaposition to the minimalist backdrop of the restaurant.
The approach is simple; Ikoyi only offers a 7-course tasting menu. Word of caution: If you’re less assured about your tolerance of spice, it’s best to lay it out on the table prior to the procession of dishes. The kitchen does not humour the undisclosed fiery food shirker. The starter, Buttermilk plantain is an Instagram celebrity, it’s mad dash of vibrant colours and geometric shapes offering visible proof. Think you can handle the hot Scotch Bonnet emulsion? We advise you to lay off the exaggerated schmears unless you want an all-out fire sale in your mouth to ruin the rest of your meal. Magenta dust stains your lips, it’s a nice surprise, while the raspberry salt injects a tangy narrative that helps to navigate the fiery breaches.
The next dish does a great job of taming the overtly enthusiastic reception. Ube (purple yam) jam on pink peppercorn and sea salt dusted cracker awaits patiently beside a small vessel of corn gazpacho. The chilled soup is rich with spices and made fashionable with rivulets of olive oil. The wine pairing option priced at an affordable 35 pounds for 4 glasses is in no need of a hard sell though the waitress (bless her heart) could use more training in wine handling.
“The fish is freshly caught today,” our waitress laments as she ferries two blue porcelain plates with long strips of mackerel gently curled up over Bunga bisque. It is indeed fresh and riveting when married with the Bunga bisque, and spiked with cinnamon, spices and basil. The prowess lies in the lightly torched mackerel itself; shy pink flesh beneath salt flecked skin frolicking with the feisty sauce. It is pleasurable, and I’m left musing about this dish days later.
With the next course, you start to notice the running theme—fine dining, wilful African flavours, each plated with Nordic sensibilities. A quick google search reveals that Chinese-Canadian chef Jeremy Chan has had culinary roots in Noma, Hibiscus and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. And like any other foodie, I’m not immune to the inflated expectations. Of course, the next dish lives up to the hype with French eggplant subjected to a wonderful ‘steak treatment’—patiently browned and basted in butter spruced with sprigs of thyme and roasted to finish. Its golden charred crust dropped right on top of black trumpet mushroom and chestnut sauce, a devilish birds eye chili inserted, just for the heck of it. It’s neither revolutionary in its series of flavours, but the techniques asserted on the humble vegetables are by all means, commendable. Avoid the chili at all costs.
The strength of a tasting menu lies in its weakest course. We approach the Denver and efo with much cynicism, the overworking of steak knives driving through the cut, sinews and all, a prelude to the travesty. Honestly, I would have gotten much more value out of the meal if this course was omitted. Thankfully, the Smoked Jollof comes to the rescue, as the smell of smoke in the air coalesces into an intoxicating evening—adding to the aesthetics of the meal. I love that there is a rugged sense in the sharing plate that drifts away from the uppity fine dining experience. The rice grains are plump with flavoursome shellfish dashi stock, a quick smoke-out imbuing grains with an exotic ‘breath of the wok’ (wok-hei) aroma. Crabmeat salad is strewed generously across, this together with a custard of brown crabs paint a harmonious picture. I helped myself to seconds, and then thirds, it was not pretty, but because I’m on a holiday, I can be shameless.
A thin slither of frozen peach marking the end of summer comes with a dollop of roasted corn caramel at the bottom. I won’t refuse the waiter if had a tub of that cashew ice cream in his hands.
Stowed away in the vicinity of the newly done up St James Market, one will be hard pressed to find a reason to wander around this futuristic grey corporate desert in search of a meal—much less a West African-inspired one. Fortunately, Ikoyi delivers punches of flavour in a haze of spice with much aplomb that its soulless moneyed surroundings are easily forgotten. There are still blank spaces to be filled in with regard to African cuisine, but I would like to believe that the tasting menu has given us a glimpse of this colourful cuisine, which might come in handy during your impending safari trip.
1 St James’s Market, St. James’s, London SW1Y 4AH, UK, +44 20 3583 4660