BBQ quail yassa at Akoko
 BBQ quail yassa at Akoko

After a year of delays and forced postponement, the launch of Akoko in London’s Fitzrovia on Thursday 8 October is long overdue. But its opening feels overdue for other reasons too. Apart from Michelin-starred Ikoyi in St James, Akoko is the only other fine-dining restaurant in London (and one of the few anywhere) that focuses on west-African cuisine. There may be casual options such as Teranga in New York and Eko Kitchen in San Francisco, not to mention supper clubs like Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen and Lerato in the UK, but gourmet options remain almost non-existent.

The menu at Akoko is rooted in Nigerian, Ghanaian and Senegalese dishes, which most westerners won’t be familiar with. So the team has opted for tasting menus instead of à la carte. The hope is to do away with these once people are more clued up about west-African food (a couple of years, hopes its owner and recipe-developer Aji Akokomi). For the present, a tasting menu suits me fine, particularly in the hands of the talented and playful head chef William Chilila. This is a man who wears SpongeBob SquarePants socks and has tattoos on his arms of his favourite vegetables, including a beetroot, turnip and carrot. Formerly of The Orrery in Marylebone, though probably best-known as a semi-finalist on Masterchef: The Professionals, Chilila is Zambian with South African and Ghanaian roots. Drawing on his heritage as well as the extensive first-hand knowledge of Nigerian-born Akokomi, he has come up with some truly satisfying iterations of classic west-African dishes.

Head chef William Chilila
Head chef William Chilila

At a special preview at Akokomi’s house in Blackheath, I was treated to the short tasting menu of six dishes (there is also a long menu of 10 dishes and a lunchtime menu of four). The meal kicked off with a fluffy croquette filled with steamed yam (isu) and topped with mushroom purée and truffles. Next was boli, typically a Nigerian street food of roasted plantain with nuts. This version looked like the most beautiful peanut-butter-and-banana tartine I’d ever seen. It tasted extraordinary. Chilila had soaked the ripe plantain in cashew milk, grilled it over charcoal for “36 seconds”, sprinkled it with lightly toasted nuts coated in salt, sugar and citrus, and dusted it with onion, garlic and ginger powders that he’d made from leftover skins – part of the restaurant’s effort to use every part of every ingredient.

The highlight for me was the smoked goat with jollof rice and coleslaw. The meat was rich and moist, the rice hickory-scented from having been smoked, and the citrus-dressed kohlrabi slaw sharp and crunchy. On its heels was a BBQ quail yassa, based on the Senegalese dish where poultry is marinated in Dijon mustard, sliced onions and lemons. Reconfiguring those ingredients, Chilila had marinated the quail in orange and lemon juice before smoking it, then served it juicy and pink on slow-cooked Lyonnaise onions with yellow and black mustard seeds. Delicious.

Akoko’s take on Nigerian boli
Akoko’s take on Nigerian boli

Dessert was a hard-to-beat goat-milk ice cream with crumbly Ghanaian cocoa butter, burnt uda cream (infused with a spice similar to vanilla) and iru (fermented locust bean). This last ingredient, often likened to miso, had been powdered, added to a blend of grapeseed oil, lemongrass, parsley and thyme stalks, cooked for six hours, rapidly chilled and then drizzled over the ice cream like a syrupy vinaigrette. It worked a treat, bringing something thrillingly herby and unexpected to the sweetness.

Can Akoko break through and make west-African food not only more familiar but desirable too? With Chilila at the helm, you’ve got to hope so. 

Akoko, 21 Berners St, London W1 (akoko.co.uk)

 @ajesh34

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