1 St James’s Market,
St James’s Market is, apparently, one of the West End’s ‘most exciting new business addresses’. An oxymoronic conceit if there ever was one. And just after midday on a dull mid-week afternoon, this gleaming new cathedral to ‘luxury lifestyle retail’ seems more glossy ghost town, a new stone no man’s land in an old-money enclave. Wandering through its pristine concrete canyons, I feel like Cillian Murphy at the start of 28 Days Later, alone in an eerily empty city. Any moment now, those zombies will burst from marble clad porticos, hungry not for brains but Balenciaga bags.
‘Where the hell did this spring from?’ wails my friend Seb, as he rings for the fifth time, hopelessly lost and utterly bewildered. ‘One moment it’s a quiet Clubland backstreet, the next some, some… bloody Ballardian dystopia.’
The room is somewhat lacking in charm. With its vast, gaping glass windows, we feel like haunches of beef in a butcher’s shop, naked and exposed
Well quite. Three and a half centuries back, when the original St James’s Market teemed with higglers, aggers, swillbellies and braggarts, things might have been a lot more fun. If decidedly more dirty. Now, though, it feels like an old face injected with an excess of Botox. Taut-skinned but robbed of its grin.
Deep within this Market is Ikoyi, a place that promises a ‘modern twist’ on West African food. The room is somewhat lacking in charm. With its vast, gaping glass windows, we feel like haunches of beef in a butcher’s shop, naked and exposed. Money has obviously been splashed on the fit out, with soft, Colman’s-coloured banquettes, slick sound system and a floor studded with marble pebbles. But like St James’s Market, it tries too hard, and forgets that lunch is best enjoyed shielded from the glare of passing punters. Perhaps it’s better under the cloak of night.
Chicken oyster. Eating at Ikoyi can, at times, feel like dancing to an entirely different culinary beat
But then we start to eat. And dear God, this food is a revelation. What I know about West African food could be scrawled on the back of a periwinkle. My friend Ade tells me luscious tales of jollof rice, and red pepper stew with oxtail. And I devoured Yemisi Aribisala’s lyrical, lusty and lovely Longthroat Memoirs – the sultry sexuality of snails, ‘peppered puff puffs with the aroma of newsprint’, inara, pitanga cherries, fermented locust beans and the nostalgia of ogbono soup.
And eating at Ikoyi can, at times, feel like dancing to an entirely different culinary beat, with flavours that are both warmly familiar (pepper and chilli are allowed to strut their stuff) and intriguingly strange. Snacks first – buttermilk fried plantain, satisfyingly stodgy, comes dusted in a smoked habanero powder. The heat is perfectly judged, just fierce enough to make you blink – and tickle the nose – but not so violent it makes you weep. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen the plantain’s point. A chicken oyster, that most sweet and succulent nugget of bird, comes topped with a ferrous oyster leaf, and is sharpened with a lick of tamarind. A judicious sprinkle of Penja pepper adds lusty, musty heat.
Octopus pepper soup has sublime umami depth, with a hint of Bovril and the bonfire. And another hearty whack of pepper. Obviously. A lone cephalopod leg is just charred, and sublimely soft, and the coastal herbs add exotic saline allure. Despite these big flavours, though, the whole dish has a delicate, elegant charm. It’s a soup of true magnificence.
FROM THE MENU
Buttermilk plantain £5.50
Chicken oyster £6
Smoke fish mackerel £12
Octopus pepper soup £13
Jollof rice £11.50
Manx lamb rib turns out to be a fat chop, lavishly licked by the flame, fecund with juice, and heavy on flavour, with an asun (a peppery rub traditionally used on goat) relish. Again, there’s a bold but not brutal chilli heat that gently clears the nose. And a slick sophistication to the sauce too. Head chef and co-owner Jeremy Chan has worked under Heston Blumenthal and René Redzepi, and this shows, not just in the precision of the flavours and the championing of obscure ingredients, but in the cool, modern presentation, with locally thrown ceramics and cutlery of the darkest black.
Slices of pale pink Iberico pork sit next to a pile of suyu, a merrily rustic spice mix made with ground peanuts. The meat is hewn from a superior pig. Fish is cooked with equal precision – a mighty wild Nigerian tiger prawn is buxom rather than pappy, and still wears that ethereal scent of the sea. Perched on a buttery mess of corn, it’s surrounded by still more umami rich, spicy broth that flatters and heightens the sweetness of the flesh. Oh, and don’t miss the jollof rice, served with barbecued onions and wobbling nuggets of smoked bone marrow.
If only the room had more charm. Because this is vibrant, sexy, big-hearted food (albeit at St James’s prices), served up in a resolutely modern manner. If you know your West African food, prepare to be dazzled. And if, like me, you know next to nothing, then it’s that rarest of things – a genuinely new experience. Just like the Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Woman, Ikoyi blew my nose. Then she blew my mind.
Lunch for two: £100
What Tom ate this week
An exceptionally good lunch at The Ritz, judging Country Life’s Gentleman of the Year. Langoustine, then the most incredible grouse, from the great John Williams.
Lunch at Trishna. Partridge pepper fry, prawn balchao and chilli and onion salad, plus lots of buttery naan. I forgot quite how good this place was. Dinner, a toasted cheese sandwich and tomato salad.
5/2 looms its dreary head. Lots of prawns, a couple of bowls of soup and early bed.
To the funeral of Bernie Katz, The Prince of Soho. A quick Pret jambon beurre sandwich on the way, an incredibly moving procession through Soho, then rather too many cocktails at Quo Vadis and The Groucho. A fitting send off to a great man.