Before any food had reached our table — before the ornate, bespoke bowls and hand-whittled butter knives had been brought over with great ceremony — I found myself agog at the detailed sumptuousness of it all. The lights were dipped to a warm, sunset glow; Nigerian pop bounced softly off the earthy chocolate-brown walls. And over in the copper-accented open kitchen, masked chefs were hunched over something tiny and complicated, like veterinary surgeons beginning a life-saving procedure.
It could have been Accra or Lagos by way of a New Nordic spot in Copenhagen, or a dream sequence from the minds of second-generation Black Brits who want their jollof alongside a thoughtful, low-intervention wine programme. But it wasn’t. It was Akoko, entrepreneur Aji Akokomi’s long-stewing, contemporary West African restaurant in Fitzrovia. And it is (though I am perhaps culturally biased) one of the more vital, distinctive and blazingly dynamic new restaurants in the city.
New is the right word, considering Akoko has recently been subject to something of a reboot. Talented William JM Chilila, head chef at the time of the restaurant’s much-delayed October launch last year, has left, departing between lockdowns to join the team at Pan-African Mayfair restaurant Stork and pursue personal projects, including a recent residency at Carousel. Now Theo Clench, formerly of Michelin-starred Portland, is executive chef. And Victor Okunowo, previously at Old Kent Road’s Talking Drum, has done time in the kitchen.
Such staffing musical chairs and conceptual tinkering could betray a business experiencing an early-onset identity crisis. But, having intently watched (read: lightly stalked) the restaurant’s progress since it was first announced in 2019, this retooled, 2.0 version of Akoko seems to have a newfound clarity, expansiveness and verve.
Akokomi and his team — who have evolved the tasting menu from a pair of seven-dish affairs into a range of more varied feasts, topping out with a 10-courser at £95 — seem surer of what they want to achieve, more confident and expressive in their plating and, perhaps, less aware of the looming shadow of Ikoyi (the Michelin-starred, glancingly African restaurant that is this project’s undeniable spiritual antecedent). This pattern begins with the palate-jolting, introductory courses. Smoked fish and tomato tart — a fine-drawn miniature of shattering, beetroot-infused pastry, fermented kombu (the Japanese dried kelp) and an intense sort of oceanic custard — brings an almost hallucinatory rip of musky intensity. Crackle-crusted, mildly ferrous loaves of warm stout bread come with a high-gloss chicken yassa butter (an onion-based Senegalese stew, apparently) packing a shudderingly effective, profoundly savoury twang. And ox cheek bofrot is quite the livener: a dark, putty-like orb of deep-fried dough, dusted with brick-red scotch bonnet powder and generously crammed with spiced shreds of luscious meat.
There was bougie jollof rice of course, voila’d from beneath a smoke-filled wooden cloche, intermingled with crispy, puffed grains and served beside both a glazed lozenge of carrot and gorgeously nuanced Ivorian aubergine sauce. I have no doubt that older relatives would have felt personally attacked by these innovations, by the decorative sprinkling of chives and by the diminutive portion size. But that is precisely the point: at its best, Akoko’s triumph is to re-energise tradition with a flash of modernity, to draw out the sophistication, elegance and undulating flavour complexity of food that, when it isn’t ignored, is mostly celebrated for its humble, homespun qualities.
True, if I am being picky, I could point out that, alongside a capably barbecued quail, the presence of yet more yassa-flavoured accompaniments (both as a traditional sauce and a frothy hollandaise) felt a touch repetitive. But things ended with a subtly spectacular cheesecake pudding; another artful piece of crockery, carefully layered with candied nuts, corn, passionfruit and mango sorbet, white chocolate and the counterbalancing, gentle hum of cream enriched with the miso-like ogiri. Visually understated but positively riotous on the tongue, it was a fitting encapsulation of this retooled restaurant’s earthy opulence and affecting, hidden depths. Akoko — a Yoruba word that means “the first” or “time” — has navigated a rocky path, convulsed by pandemic, to cultivate something rare and hard-won. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that it has been worth the wait.
21 Berners Street, W1T 3LP. Meal for two plus drinks around £200. Open Wednesday to Saturday for dinner from 6pm to 11pm; Saturday for lunch from 12pm to 2pm; akoko.co.uk