I haven’t been to London for months. Why bother. It’s just as expensive as always, and isn’t it empty now, the commuter belt armies uprooting to their sheds and spare rooms? I haven’t been to a restaurant in London for even longer. Why bother. Aren’t all the good’uns now in rural villages or hugging a coastline somewhere in the South West? That’s what I’ve been told. Chefs saying “to hell” with the metropolitan smog and tenant strangulation by swinish landlord thugs, choosing instead to venture beyond, out into the hinterland where they can farm-forage-pick-and-pull at the land themselves. But just as the umpteenth lockdown was lifted, I was tempted back in, to St James’s Market – to Ikoyi.
Many of the nationals failed to correctly identify the cuisine, calling it West African Cooking
How best to define this restaurant? Don’t bother. Many of the nationals failed to correctly identify the cuisine, calling it West African Cooking, in part because one of the co-founders, Iré Hassan-Odukale, is Nigerian and grew up in the Lagos neighbourhood of Ikoyi. Then there’s the other co-founder and head chef, Jeremy Chan, English-born to a Chinese father and Canadian mother, growing up on-the-road, living at various points in America and Hong Kong. You can see how this can get confusing. He is also a dab-hand with the complexities and subtleties of spice. Inspired by the African continent, he researched methodically, even working with a specialist in the history of grains and African cuisine and studying the African Ethnobotany in the Americas journal.
Some critics also pointed to the dependence on West African ingredients. Again, not really true. The restaurant certainly began with the bold flavours of Nigeria and its neighbours, but ideas matured so that a new cuisine emerged, one entirely unique and not bound by geography. With knowledge of the micro-seasonality, they harness seasonal British ingredients to achieve optimal taste, as was demonstrated in a six-part, £60.00 lunch menu that’s pretty much faultless.
That seasonal aspect is vital. Locality, too. Jeremy is analytical about sourcing. He’s provocatively inquiring, to the point of obsession. Sitting together after lunch, I formed a clearer understanding of the chef and his thinking behind plates. His approach is a challenging, positive, left-of-centre perspective on fine dining. Experiences in international kitchens taught him much, but he admits he is more comfortable developing his own ideas within the sphere of his collected experiences. He’ll begin with a visual concept, then face the challenge of executing it, both aesthetically and in terms of compatibility with other ingredients.
“I think of an ingredient, then go about sourcing it,” he tells me, “so that’s it’s the very best it can be.” And then? “I’ll ask what can we do to this; can we caramelise it, pickle it, salt, dry or smoke it? How can I enhance the ingredient? It’s less about trial-and-error.” I push him on this, but he insists there’s little planning. “A vegetable at its optimal state is ready then,” he adds. Jeremy isn’t pushing an agenda or nodding to a nostalgic memory; there’s nothing to elicit his own culinary journeys and adventures, and you’ll find no smoke or foams. Menus can shift day-to-day, week-to-week, dictated by the seasons and what supplies are available. From what I ate, everything wows. Nothing is out of place, and nothing makes sense, either.
A bowl of half-a-dozen halved Sun Gold tomatoes is served with a fermented sea buckthorn granita. The tomatoes are sweet, Sun Golds being exceptionally high in sugar, like a moreish lick of lip-smacking sherbet. The granita has a sharp tang while refreshing the palate, just before an unexpected warmth creeps up, subtle but noticeable, from a red Biber chilli. Everything here has a touch of warmth to it, not crippling, nervy, twinging-of-the-behind heat, but an application that’s practised and assured.
Jeremy has referenced Iñaki Aizpitarte’s tempura of calves brains in strawberry powder at Le Chateaubriand in Paris as an inspiration
Then, the instantly recognisable curvature flick of a crescent plantain, the restaurant’s signature – now featured on branded t-shirts and tote bags. The plate initially started as two fried plantain strips dusted in red raspberry salt and served with a smoky-citrus emulsion – Instagram went wild. Jeremy has referenced Iñaki Aizpitarte’s tempura of calves brains in strawberry powder at Le Chateaubriand in Paris as an inspiration. Here, the recipe has again been adapted, caramelising a single strip in ginger then toping with kelp. The soft-sweet smoosh takes on the mellow warmth of the ginger and all of the sweetness from the caramelisation, like the kelewele and dodo I first ate in Ghana and Sierra Leone. Travelling through West Africa, I’d see vendors frying plantain in bubbling vats of palm oil so that it would release a tantalising aroma. It’s hugely popular there and has proved so here, too.
Next is a plump scallop, proper megalithic, as hefty as a baby’s fist. Crafted to perfection, it is the scallop to measure all others by, served with creamed spinach and black mint. An accompanying maitake mushroom has a fantastic texture, simultaneously earthy and woody, absorbing the flavours of the mint. Again, thanks to the addition of grounded ehuru (African nutmeg), that warmth builds once again. And a trim but perfectly formed cut of Hereford Beef is cooked soft pink, served on a Collard green leaf and topped with delicate Bonito-like black truffle. And yet, despite such luxe ingredients, it’s the groundnut emulsion that really wows. Accompanying the beef is a bowl of smoked Jollof long-grain rice with “crab custard” and a mini caramelised steamed brioche loaf that’s as sweet and airy as a lover’s kiss. I could eat these every morning for the rest of my life.
The wine list is concise, uncomplicated, with everything chosen to match the intricate balancing of dishes. A lunch pairing costs £45.00 while another puncher £95.00 is available with the evening menu, plus service. I stuck with just two glasses (125 ml), both French: a light and floral Domaine Belluard Gringet 2019 from Savoie, priced at £17.00, and a terrific pinot noir from Simon Bize & Fils’ 2014 vintage, priced at £23.50, the cherry undertones and silky tannins pairing superbly with the beef and black truffle. A cocktail menu has also been specifically created to pair with the food, in collaboration with Max and Noel Venning of Three Sheets in Dalston.
Dessert brings us full-circle: another bowl, this time of field pea ice cream – one of the oldest domesticated crops – with fig leaf and caramelised white chocolate, topped with acidic-bursting blueberries. It’s as baffling as it is revolutionary, the peas (yes, peas – think legumes, like green split peas in pease pudding) are whipped into a cooling, luscious ice cream, and the sprinkling of chocolate has the appearance of scattered sesame seeds but the sweet, frozen bite of creamy, sugary terrific-ness. I repeat, nothing is out of place, and nothing makes sense, either. London – I’m thrilled that I bothered. C
Ikoyi, 1 St James’s Market, St. James’s, London SW1Y 4AH
+44 20-3583 4660; ikoyilondon.com