West African ingredients are refined and refocused to create a cuisine with unique, unusual flavours, says Neil Gerrard
You can find plenty of chefs who profess to be serious about their food and the ingredients they use, but how many burrow into the books in the British Library to really get under the skin of what they serve?
You can bet it's not many, but that's the unusual approach taken by chef Jeremy Chan and restaurateur and business partner Iré Hassan-Odukale, who hails from Ikoyi, an upmarket neighbourhood of Lagos in Nigeria, that gives their restaurant in St James's Market its name.
Then again, Ikoyi is an uncommon restaurant. There are few eateries offering refined west African cuisine, and although this one uses ingredients common to west Africa, Chan has no intention of being bound by traditions.
Jeremy Chan and Hassan-Odukale
Chan wasn't at all familiar with Nigerian cuisine when he and Hassan-Odukale started working on the idea for Ikoyi. So they spent time in Nigeria and then took themselves off to the British Library in order to better understand the region and its food.
"We looked at where the rice and vegetables came from, how they have spread across the planet and how other cuisines use them. There are so many commonalities with west African cuisine, so that is infused into the cooking. For example, we might use a Brazilian way of cooking cassava instead of a Nigerian."
The jollof rice and smoked bone marrow (£11.50) embodies this thinking. It's a traditional west African dish, but Chan, who is of Chinese-Canadian parentage, has altered it by cooking the rice in the style of the Hainanese chicken rice he grew up eating.
"You toast rice and chicken fat with a ginger puree and then cook it in chicken stock, so you get this bouncy, slightly sticky rice. This is the technique we use, but with traditional jollof rice ingredients: peppers, onions, tomatoes. Instead of blending the raw ingredients with a simple stock, we barbecue them until they are black and smoky and then blend with chicken wing stock, which has some crayfish in it.
Finished with smoked bone marrow, it's much more than a side dish.
Likewise, the ingredients in the beef blade and traditional condiments (£22) are faithful to the Nigerian recipe, with the beef marinated in a spice marinade called suya. But Chan and Hassan-Odukale have once again hit the books (medical and culinary journals and studies of African ingredients, apparently) and researched what happens when you eat certain spices and found that Nigerian peppercorns, grains of selim, grains of paradise and types of nutmeg can aid digestion and increase the appetite.
"All the building blocks of that dish make your mouth water," Chan says."That's why I like it. I know that even if I send it out and someone doesn't like it or finds it too spicy, their mouth is still going to be watering. Everything has a reason for being there. It's not just us saying 'oh, it's African, let's add it."
Customer favourites include octopus and pepper soup and coastal herbs (£13) and the buttermilk plantain and smoked Scotch bonnet (£5.50), which stands out a mile, thanks to the dusting of red chilli against the grey plate.
When it comes to desserts, the aim is to cleanse the palate. Coffee, roasted cumin and uda cookie (£7.50) consists of an ice-cream made with coffee from Cameroon and a ganache infused with roasted cumin. Chan has been receiving requests for egusi, a traditional Nigerian melon seed soup, which he plans to add to the menu. A melon seed caramel will be accompanied by a dairy-free pumpkin ice-cream, made using sweet Hokkaido pumpkins, which will echo pumpkin pie, to be served just in time for Thanksgiving.
So far, the 42-seat restaurant and six-seat bar, has been busy, with 60-70 customers a day, partly due to London Evening Standard reviewer Fay Maschler, who awarded it four stars and praised the "titillating undercurrent of unfamiliarity" it brings to the capital's dining scene.
For Chan and Hassan-Odukale it has been a labour of love with a long search for a site before finding St James's Market. And, fortunately, for this rather intellectual pair of restaurateurs, the library is just around the corner, should they ever find themselves in need of a few more reference books.
From the menu
Chicken oyster, tamarind and penja pepper £6
Smoke fish, mackerel and tigernut £12 Manx Loaghtan rib and asun relish £10.50
Chicken, benne and okra £23
Wild Nigerian tiger prawn, banga bisque £29
Coffee, roasted cumin and uda cookie £7.50
St James Market, St James, London SW1Y 4AH
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