I wrote most of this piece earlier in the year. Sat on it for a while since I’d been busy with my move to Norwich. But now that they’ve won a Michelin star, I feel like I should have put this out sooner.
Not that I contradict anything the guide has said. They had better start recognising places like Ikoyi, that do things their own way, that have a practised and calculate finesse that is both casual and sophisticated in confluence. However, I still feel like discovering Ikoyi was like finding a precious thing. One that you kept to yourself. But now everyone is going to flood the place and I am going to have to start making reservations.
It was my first time eating on this side of Piccadilly Circus. South of the fountain around which people sit, the buskers, the theatre entrances, the path that leads down to St. James Park.
Most restaurants are found north of Piccadilly Circus because that is where Soho is, but this time I went south. Then west. Then east before seeing Ikoyi, our destination, for the first time.
The area is full of rigid lines and sharp angles. More modern. Less neo-classical. And there, at the bottom of one such building, the Crown Estate, through a large pane-less glass window, is Ikoyi: a moderately spaced restaurant emanating a light, bright earthiness that seems to replicate a charming sense of African terroir.
Yes, Ikoyi. West African Ikoyi. Struggling Ikoyi? It was what I heard. No, it was what I read. But how could a place that is so nice-looking be struggling? With such an intriguing menu, and a beautiful website? Then I remembered we needed Google to find this place. And that I hadn’t come across Ikoyi before during my many London expeditions. The restaurant is neatly tucked in St. James Market, almost camouflaged and easy to miss.
But we found it and we liked the look of it. Earthy as aforementioned. Plants, green and leafy, planted high in a row as you enter. A separation from the waiting area and the dining area, but a straight path into the kitchen.
Reservations? No, no reservation. Yes, we would be done by two, it was twelve, and the only reason I’d be in a restaurant longer than an hour would be the kitchen’s fault and not my own. I noticed the painting on the far wall. Dark, abstract, bloody almost, African tribal, poignant. It contrasts the demure finishes of the rest of the room. I liked it very much.
The course fabric banquette is too comfortable. I sank deep into it. If I wanted to sit close to my table, in a way that was convenient for polite and efficient eating, I had to sit upright, without back support, away from the welcoming comfort of the seat.
I enjoyed running my hands along the roughness of the wooden table. Felt like oak. I could be wrong. There are smooth points on it, geometric shapes aberrantly sanded. My playful fingers enjoyed the transition from rough to smooth to rough. The floor is of a peculiar kind of surface. Almost like bubbles caught in black stone, beautiful, monochromatic bubbles.
Some of the chairs have wood mesh on their backs. This is woven cane. It reminded me of the chairs in my grandmother’s house in Goa. Not the most comfortable, but they did the job and emanated the aura of handwoven artisanship. I don’t know if these were handmade, but they stimulated my imagination.
The menu on harsh brown paper was short, small and focused. Minimalist. A few words, sometimes just one, to describe what you are ordering. You are forced to ask the waiter to elaborate. Our waiter was a little intimidating. An Asian man with a crisp, confident voice, good posture, understated by his plaid shirt and neutral chinos. If he was in uniform he’d have been more impressive. But it works. Maddy agreed.
What is Mbongo? Efu? Ehuru? Suya? Unless you are familiar with this unfamiliar cuisine you would not know these words. In a full restaurant, you would need more waiters mobilised to explain a menu such as this, the flavours of alligator pepper and banga, when a line of explanation might have been more efficient.
But then where is the magic? These words are mysterious, the sauces and spices exotic and adventurous. I am forced to trust, or extricate more information. I asked for the bare minimum and decide on trust and intuition. I had a good feeling about the place.
Maddy had a good feeling about the place too. There were a couple of interesting vegetarian options on the menu. We ordered them and the octopus for me.
Plantains came first. Slivers, shards, knives of plantain, flat, sharp, bloodied, though an old bright, powdery blood, Willy Wonka-esque, of raspberry dust. Two on a plate with a splotch of scotch bonnet emulsion. The contrasts of colour and flavour were exciting and made stark by the blackness of the plate.
The plantains were crisp and soft. Sweet and salty, mushy and crisp, with even more candy sweetness added by the raspberry dust that made me think of the lotus crisps I had at XU not long ago. These were tasty. And then dipped in the emulsion, fire and sweet swirled on the palate like love and lust.
Peppers came crinkly and charred, covered in crumbs, once again beside an emulsion, this time of cashew. It was not the most flamboyant dish but it was appetising. It was pleasant and nutty and representative of Ikoyi’s more humble attention to fundamentals.
Then the mains. The mushroom suya was soft, steamy, a dark puck that is filled with malted barley, pine nuts and a smooth sauce. Better and more luxurious was the octopus mbongo, spiced with alligator pepper, squid ink and a plethora of indigenous African ingredients that tickle the tongue and that soothes it with its creamy texture. The singular octopus tentacle is tender and sweet and utterly delectable.
I teetered on the edge of ordering dessert.
We ordered it, in the end, because we see it across the room. It looked otherworldly, a dessert from space. It tasted just as interesting. The saltiness of the sesame powder intermingled with streaks of blackberry coulis and sweet berry parfait. My spoon cut the brick of parfait in a way that caused it to flake and falter rather than be seen through smoothly. I like the jagged crevices my spoon made in the dessert, like shards of rock falling off a cliff after an earthquake. Maddy is not a fan of savoury-sweet desserts. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I have one last stroke of the table before I left. I took in the steam of the aromatic passing plate of jollof rice, the ambience of a slowly filling up restaurant. Then I suddenly noticed people speaking African around me.
A few older couples had come to Ikoyi for lunch. I felt validated. Elderly people these days do not eat out unless they find somewhere comfortable. For old African people to find comfort here, those who I assumed to be custodians of their tradition by the way they were dressed, was high praise indeed.
Ikoyi is bold and confident with its food. Its look feels deeply rooted in something important. They serve food that is unlike any in London. They stay true to themselves, the cuisine and culture they represent, adding to the city’s diverse gastronomic wealth. Their star is well-deserved, for it has been given to the kind of eating experience you cannot stop thinking about.
Location: 1 St James’s Market, St. James’s, London SW1Y 4AH