An exquisite gustatory journey into West Africa
Akoko restaurant imbues the warmth, energy and serenity of West Africa right in the middle of Fitzrovia. Recently reopened with Chef Theo Clench of Portland and Bonhams at the helm, its founder Aji Akokomi spent months teaching Theo about his three pillars of West African cooking – fire, umami and spice. The result is a six or nine-course tasting menu that has been designed to showcase the ethos of Akoko – celebrating West African dining elevated to levels not seen before.
Akoko’s interior is minimalist in design but somehow reminded me of warmer temperatures. The servers were very warm and friendly, which added to the vibe of comfort and quiet luxury. Upon seating, we were offered house still or sparkling water and greeted with an ample drinks menu. There is a selection of classic cocktails, beers, and non-alcoholic mocktails. The wine list was extensive and starts at £7 by the glass or £39 by the bottle. All their wines are natural, organic and sustainable, sourced from small producers all over the world. Since my companion and I were abstaining from alcohol, we ordered the champagne yeast-fermented ginger beer and scotch bonnet with lemon cordial. Both drinks took an interesting spin on familiar flavours which felt refreshing.
Shortly after selecting our drinks, we were asked if we wanted to choose the short Mefa menu comprising six dishes which is priced at £75 or the full Mesan menu comprising nine dishes priced at £95. Both menus also offer an optional wine pairing with four glasses of wine for the short menu priced at £55 and six glasses of wine for the full menu priced at £75.
As someone without prior knowledge of West African cuisine, we opted for the nine-course Mesan menu to gain the full experience, an option I can firmly classify into the fine dining category. I experienced a lot of new flavours but it was all presented within a familiar context and plated beautifully. Every bite very much felt like an experience because you can tell that a lot of thought has gone into the taste, texture and presentation for each dish, complemented by impeccable service from the waiting staff.
The Mesan menu started off with welcome snacks which consisted of three bite-sized items. The first item was a yam croquette with squid ink and autumn truffles. While the texture was very familiar, the combination of yam and squid ink was a novel taste and the autumn truffles added a luxurious crunch. The second item was fonio (an ancient grain) with smoked fish and fermented kombu. It possessed a very interesting umami flavour which although totally unfamiliar proved a pleasant surprise to the palette. Finally, there was a savoury version of bofrot (Ganean) or poff-poff (Nigerian) filled with ox cheek.
The first course was a Gambian oyster which is a single Carlingford oyster cooked on coal, then immersed in Gambian oyster stew sprinkled with pickled cucumber dust. The wine pairing recommendation is a Chardonnay from Domaine de la Cras in Coteaux de Dijon, which has a crisp but creamy rounded finish to absorb the spices from the Gambian stew. This was followed with Guinness bread and yassa butter. The third course was ofe nsala, an Isle of Mull scallop with white soup thickened with yam, Ghanesian XO sauce and smoked fish. It’s safe to say that I’ve never tasted scallop like this before. The combination of XO sauce and smoked fish made an interesting but balanced blend.
Next, we moved on to the Cornish turbot which came slow-cooked with caviar, charcoal oil and flavours of ehuru, calabash, nutmeg and yellow peppers. It came beautifully presented, a real work of art, and tasted like a masterpiece.
At this point, I began to wonder if West African food was not at all spicy because none of these dishes were hot. The next dish, jollof rice, answered my question. The rice came smoked with a separate plate for the carrot terrine and Ivorian aubergine sauce. Since it was mildly spicy, the wine pairing recommendation was a rich red wine from Zweigeltrebe, Korab in Moravia which was equally full-bodied, intense and earthy to complement the strong jollof flavour.
For the penultimate savoury dish, a posh version of the suya was presented on a skewer. This Nigerian street food was upgraded to take better parts of the barbequed hogget belly and sprinkled with suya spice. There was also excess suya spice on the side for those who wanted to increase the hotness of the dish.
The final savoury dish was an egusi (melon seed stew) with aged Longhorn sirloin beef with barbequed kale. Pre-dessert was a vanilla and baobab mousse with a hibiscus and lemon core which easily melted in your mouth with an explosion of flavour.
Finally, dessert was a roasted pineapple sorbet with mango and a malt tuile topped with spiced pineapple consomme. The wine pairing was a sweet Pinot Gris Grains Cendres from Pierre Frick which ends the meal on a sweet note. For those staying for teas and coffees, the bite-size petit fours were divine and paired well with either their lost Malawi tea or their wild harvest rooibos tea.
It was definitely a meal to remember and a great introduction to West African dining.
Looking for food from a different part of the African continent? We recommend Kudu in Peckham South London
Disclosure – we were guests of Akoko