Ikoyi is permanently closed
There are multiple André Leon Talley moments from 2009’s The September Issue that live long in the memory. Two stand out. The first is when the late, great, six foot seven aesthete plays tennis. He is dressed entirely in Louis Vuitton. The second is his now legendary declaration that, “there is a famine of beauty honey”, before announcing, sunglasses donned inside, a dead animal wrapped around his neck, that… “my eyes are starving for beauty!”.
Talley is, in many ways, the archetypal fine dining customer. No other type of restaurant treats people as if their entire being is fading away from a lack of attention. You’re given manners, water, origin stories, more water and, eventually, a fava bean perched on top of a peacock feather. But the fine dining restaurant has lost its way. A humourless uniformity has been adopted. The hungry are now the captive. We enter tasting menus feeling like we’re doing time at HMP Poncy. Except at Ikoyi.
If you want to go to a fine dining restaurant in London, then head to St. James’s and go to Ikoyi. It’s as simple as that. On opening in 2017 it was billed as a place for a kind of haute West African dining experience, but the reality is that Ikoyi is entirely unto itself. It makes both the unrecognisable and the recognisable—the hallmark of all tasting menus—like sumptuous octopus with a yeasted bérnaise sauce, or an unashamedly simple doughnut-ish glazed brioche barley bread. There are foams and fernickety bits along the way, because it’s still very much a fine dining restaurant, but time does fly here. And that’s fun. Even if it costs £170 for dinner.
For that price you’re also getting all of the usual tasting menu tropes to satisfy the traditionalists: subservience, hydration, a diligent crumb-brusher. And, although it doesn’t feel like a high-end funeral home, Ikoyi does still tick the box of an inoffensive beige room. But you won’t care as all the beauty and thrills are placed in front of your eyes. Of the 13 courses, things like plantain with ginger and kelp and smoked jollof rice always stay on the menu. Not just because they’re deep in flavour and completely gorgeous, but because West African spicing is vital to what Ikoyi is. The theatre isn’t as much in the flames here as it is in the flavour of every plate of adventurous food.
One thing that could feel inessential and excessive, as only the best and most worthwhile things tend to do, is the wine pairing. Yes it is another £95 on top. And yes that is a significant lump of cash. But one pairing can be shared and it adds an additional layer of flavour that Ikoyi is so clearly obsessed about. A glass of Chassagne-Montrachet gently spread over two courses (a chawanmushi-like tigernut custard with caviar and meaty grilled ceps with a silky tomato velouté) turns the special into the spectacular. Too many multi-course pairings feel like an assault course led by a sergeant major in the kitchen. Here the pacing isn’t just normal, it’s nice.
On paper, head chef Jeremy Chan and co-founder Ire Hassan-Odukale aren’t doing anything different to every other £150+ tasting menu across London. They all set out to maximise flavour. To revolutionise gastronomy by deconstructing a jam roly-poly. For the most part, fine dining chefs don’t just consider the oyster, they’ll turn it into Frankenstein’s monster. But Ikoyi feels different. No one leaves here starving for beauty or flavour.
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Seasonality and experimentation is part of Ikoyi’s schtick and, as such, their menu tends to change. But a couple of things always stick around. Plantain is a mainstay, whether delicately caramelised in ginger and kombu or with smoked kelp and blackberries–and it’s a feature on both the lunch and dinner menus. The same goes for their smoked jollof rice. The wheel hasn’t been completely reinvented here—it is deeply flavoured smoky rice—but the addition of sheep kebab and a luscious crab custard takes a classic dish somewhere different and unexpected. Traditional it is not, but very little about Ikoyi is.