This tasting menu-only restaurant interprets West African flavours as fine dining, presenting original ingredients with a modern sensibility
"West African food is my background, my blood, my heritage," says Ayo Adeyemi, the new executive chef at Akoko. "I grew up with these flavours. But until recently they weren't recognised, and no one would associate them with fine dining."
Adeyemi is of Nigerian heritage, and was born and raised in the UK. He has travelled the world during his cheffing career, taking inspiration from kitchens including Srijith Gopinathan's Campton Place in San Francisco, Heston Blumenthal's the Hind's Head and the Fat Duck, and Ryan Clift's Tippling Club in Singapore, where he was head chef until last summer.
It was at this point he was approached by Akoko's owner, Aji Akokomi, to lead the kitchen, which first opened in 2020. Over the past couple of years there has been a welcome wave of African restaurants giving the cuisine the recognition it deserves. Drawing inspiration from regions including Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, Adeyemi says the 35-cover Akoko aims to make West African cooking approachable, while focusing on three core elements – fire cooking, umami and spices – within a fine dining setting.
"My memories of West African food are of big sharing portions, hearty meals of stew made in clay pots and smelling the wood and charcoal," he recalls. "I remember visiting as a kid and the electricity would go on and off, which is why there is so much salting, fermenting and dry-curing in the cuisine. Scotch bonnet chillies feature in a lot of dishes and are often used as a seasoning instead of salt. Tomatoes and red bell peppers are an integral part of West African cooking, as are tubers like yam and cassava, which are the main starches."
These key flavours jump out from Akoko's tasting menu, which is available as seven courses at lunchtime Thursday to Saturday for £55, or as 12 courses in the evening on Tuesday to Saturday for £120.
"I think my job is to show a bit of authenticity," he says. "While my style of cooking is progressive and innovative, I still keep the core basis of the flavours, because if I try and refine a West African recipe, you take away its authenticity."
Take the jollof rice, a typical West African meal and one of Akoko's signature dishes: "I could play around and deconstruct it," he says. "But that removes the whole purpose of showing what it is. Instead, I think about how can we enhance the spice, add umami and include an exciting fire element."
Adeyemi starts his jollof rice by making the ata base, which is a red bell pepper and tomato reduction that forms the base of many different stews in West African cooking: "I have memories of my mum making enough ata to last for a month," he says. Onions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, red bell pepper and scotch bonnet chili are blended into a red paste and reduced for two or three hours until concentrated. He toasts basmati or long grain rice before adding the ata base, seasoning with a little more ginger, garlic paste and salt. It is then covered with a stock made from beef, goat or chicken bones, which have been pressure-cooked with curry powder, a bay leaf, onion and garlic, before cooking slowly in the oven.
"It's almost like a biryani," he says. "We lightly smoke it, serve it in individual clay pots and finish it with chopped chives and crispy wild rice, where the rice is fried until it puffs up. It reminds me of the taste of rice that has caught in the bottom of the pan and gives you that charred texture."
Alongside the jollof rice, Adeymi serves a native blue Scottish lobster which is taken out of its shell and grilled over Japanese charcoal and Namibian wood. The shells and head are roasted in butter and olive oil, which is then brushed over the lobster, and served with a carrot terrine and sauce made from the green stems, blended with jollof stock and finished with an African version of XO sauce, made from dried shrimp and chillies, and a salsa verde made from parsley, lemon, garlic and mustard.
"I'm playing and I'm not afraid to use bold flavours and spices, while keeping the core techniques and allowing the food to speak for itself," he says. "We're a tasting menu restaurant. Guests are here to experience a journey, and each dish tells a story and highlights something different."
21 Berners Street, London W1T 3LP https://akoko.co.uk
From the menu
Yam, truffles, ehuru, penja
Waina, yassa cream
Otoro, red pepper, Scotch Bonnet kani, white kombu
Asun, lavash, goats' curd, burnt cucumber
Miyan Taushe, Delicia pumpkin, mackerel, honey
Ayamase, Orkney scallop, green plantain, shito XO
Jollof rice, native blue lobster, carrot terrine
Peppersoup, kohlrabi, shiso
Maafe, squab, suya, charred greens
Pineapple, tepache, citrus
Aridan, mushroom bofrot, uda ice-cream, quince
Tasting menu, £120; wine pairing, £80, premium wine pairing, £150; soft pairing, £50
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