When I first heard about Ikoyi London, I was overcome with feverish excitement. "Finally!" I thought - a restaurant that brings the flair of West African cuisine to London's diverse culinary scene. West African cuisine has hardly been given the time of day in London, which is surprising given that its people have moulded the city, one way or another, for at least half a century. This is why Ikoyi London is important. It's the first of its kind - an establishment that aims to showcase what West African fusion is all about. I admit that this is a rather heavy undertaking. After all, what does 'West African fusion' really mean? This question in particular occupied my thoughts following my multi-course meal. But before I delve into conceptual matters, let's talk generally about the food (and design).
The restaurant's dishes were impressive in their own right. I expected nothing less given that the head chef and co-founder, Jeremy Chan, has worked at some of the world's finest restaurants including three michelin star Noma and one michelin star Hedone. Essentially, each dish exhibited technical prowess and careful planning, evident from the skilful balancing of flavours and textures as well as the delicate presentation. My favourites included the Manx Loughton Rib with Asun Relish (£9.50), the Jollof Rice with Bone Marrow (£10.50) and the Beef Blade with Suya (£22).
Furthermore the restaurant's design, a project undertaken by the reputable interior design firm, Studio Ashby, pleases the eye with its ample window space, Pierre Jeanneret inspired chairs, earthy ceramic lamps and fluid-like marbled floors. It's truly a case study in hybridised modern design. This being said, I would have liked the minimal space to incorporate more artworks.
Despite the restaurant's impressive cuisine and clean design, I still felt unsettled after my experience. For some time, I couldn't quite figure out why. And then I remembered the question that had occupied my thoughts earlier, that is, "what does West African fusion really mean?" Indeed, what does it mean? Slowly, I realised that I felt unsettled because I had a different conception of the term.
From my understanding, 'West African fusion' ought to be about transforming West African ingredients, refining traditional cooking techniques and deconstructing familiar flavour profiles. In my view, Ikoyi London didn't really do this and that's okay, depending on what the founders had in mind. Rather, what I observed was an admirable combination of well-sourced British produce (for example: the Manx Loughton rib, the beef blade and the tiger prawn) and West African spices or sauces. The West African flavours were not fully integrated into the dishes (which I expected) but rather acted as exoticised accompaniments. Other dishes (such as the dessert, the Jollof rice and the octopus "pepper soup") despite being tasty were either missing a West African flair or were attenuated versions of the original.
In summary, Ikoyi London offers fine stand-alone dishes but its West African identity is slightly lacking. I think the menu needs to be bolder, more experimental and unapologetically West African. However, as I mentioned earlier, this critique comes from someone who has grown up with West African cuisine. I imagine that Londoners without any prior exposure would have a totally different experience - a novel one indeed. But I do believe that a fusion restaurant succeeds when its dishes appeal equally to the cultures that it tries to emulate, so herein lays the challenge.
It's still early days and some restaurants need time to figure out what they're really about. I shall return in a few months to see what the chefs have to offer. All things considered, I believe that this establishment has great potential. Congratulations to the team!
PS: I’ve used the term “West African” a lot in this review and I’m fully aware of the hundreds of cultures that comprise this multifaceted identity. However, most of the dishes on the restaurant’s menu are influenced by mainstream Nigerian cuisine, which I can speak for.
1 St James's Market
London, SW1Y 4AH