Press: Studio Ashby’s recently completed Ikoyi project featured in London Evening Standard
Restaurant of the Week
Words by: Fay Maschler
“A ballsy idea for a restaurant that actually delivers,” concludes my dinner companion, a chap who eats out no fewer than three times a day. West African-inspired food cooked by a Chinese-Canadian chef in a restaurant named after a prosperous part of Lagos that was home to the Nigerian business partner installed in a soulless West End precinct where other catering operations have all the allure of a fridge with the door left ajar is a fairly quick summary. If you argue, as some do about whether London is now the most dynamic restaurant city on earth, Ikoyi Is a bit of a clincher.
Jeremy Chan and Iré Hassan-Odukale, friends from childhood, are both public-school educated, the former an Old Wykehamist – motto: Manners makyth man – the latter an Old reptonian – motto: Porta Vacat Culpa (“The gate is free from blame”). Both went into jobs in finance before acknowledging that their real passion was for cooking and hospitality. Chan has worked in the kitchens of Claude Bosi’s Hibiscus, Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner and René Redzepi’s Noma but always with the aim of picking up methodology for doing his own thing. Hassan-Odulake took time out from part of his business studies to work front of house at Clutch Kitchen (clutchkitchen.com – can’t wait to go) run by two of his friends. Ikoyi has been at least two years in the making and the considerable amount of money obviously spent has been well spent. The swishy Studio Ashby, an interior design company that tends to appear in magazines such as How to Spend It and Luxx, has juxtaposed surfaces such as alabaster plaster and sheets of plywood, created simple comfort shaded by verdant planting and installed a sophisticated sound system that, unusually, is a pleasure that doesn’t engulf conversation. Graphics for signage and menus are ultra-stylish. The evening I visited the restaurant, Thomas Heatherwick, designer of the 2-12 Olympic cauldron happened to be sitting at the bat, a nice if totally random detail of the scheme.
Dishes are based on British produce dressed and bejewelled by West African regalia. A perfect example not to be missed is the first course of Manx Loaghton rib & asun relish. Asun, a peppery rub and marinade usually applied to goat meat, here is rendered as a shiny, spicy, habanero-spiked sauce served alongside a French-trimmed cutlet from the rare breed four-horned sheep native to the Isle of Man. The flavour is profound, the texture of the meat probably owing something to sous-vide before grilling, a favoured Heston technique.
Like every assembly it is presented on a striking ceramic plate. Jess Joslin and Owen Wall, both potters based in east London, have created ideal backdrops that are set off by gleaming black cutlery from Portugal. Stoneware takes a backseat to the vivid scarlet scatter of smoked Scotch Bonnet peppers that cover slices of buttermilk-soaked fried plantain. Banana affability is dominated but not annihilated by the thrum of chilli that lives on jiving happily on the palate, an effect unleashed by nearly all of the savoury dishes.
Little culinary quips crop up, such as oyster leaves worn like hats on sautéed chicken oysters (one of the snacks), but flavour quite properly dictates fashion.
A friend describes wild Nigerian tiger prawns as “sweet frustrated lobsters” where sous-vide, if it has been used, has done no favour to texture but banga bisque and prawn grits that accompany them compensate. “Smoke fish” mackerel is the fish cured then torched so that is incredibly delicately “cooked” under a crinkled skin served with tiny slices of raw okra, fermented locust bean butter and a douce “milk” extracted from tiger nuts. A fleshy sprig akin to samphire’s fatter sister sits on top. It is another gathering not to be missed.
Jollof rice, a dish common to most West African countries, is slick with chicken stock and barbecued onions but made opulent by the addition of smoked, salted bone marrow to stir in. Garden egg and wild spinach efo (Yoruba name) is aubergine (eggplant, geddit?) topped with what is a highly nutrient-rich weed. It is also rather delicious.
Having approached the menu by ordering nearly all of it between two — regretting later missing out on beef blade, a sophisticated take on Nigerian suya served with traditional condiments (raw onion, tomatoes and peanuts) — we try both desserts. Zobo (hibiscus) papaya, Paradise and buttermilk is more flirtatious than sultry coffee fondant, roasted cumin and uda cookie but they are a fine pair to divvy up.
From Roasted Plantain Old Fashioned and Cassava Sour cocktails at the start to Malawi Mountain Moto (tea) at the finish there is a titillating undercurrent of unfamiliarity (for some of us anyway) filtered through a high end, sometimes Nordic skill set, coupled with a sense of celebration and inclusion fostered by amiable staff. Win-win for London.
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