photo credit: David A. Lee
Dept. Of Culture
We don’t normally give friends money to throw dinner parties where we get to schmooze with strangers, eat comfort food we didn’t make, and happily shut up when the host gives a speech. (Usually we pay in red wine or tupperware containers of congealed macaroni and cheese.) If we were going to dole out cash for that kind of thing, $75 would seem like a pretty good deal–especially if it meant eating one of the city’s most exciting meals in a setting that feels like an apartment hang. That’s what’s happening at Dept. Of Culture, a Nigerian restaurant you need to book a seat at right now.
This Bed-Stuy place serves a four-course, prix-fixe meal twice nightly in a room off of Nostrand Avenue. The space has the energy of a cool gallery opening, only the attendees here don't have daddies and personal connections to the Getty family. Or maybe they do. But they're not insufferable about it. Dept. Of Culture can only fit about 15 diners per seating, most of whom commune at a wooden table next to framed photos of the owner’s grandparents.
David A. Lee
Nigerian records spin, white wine glugs into tiny ridged IKEA glasses, and the more people sip their complimentary chenin blanc (or whatever they brought to drink if they already knew about the BYOB policy), the friendlier and less first-day-of-school shy they become. By the end of the meal, the communal table of strangers will have shared BYOB selections and who they approve of on Love Is Blind. In short, it's a blast to eat at Dept. Of Culture. Our meals here even inspired a guide to restaurants that feel like dinner parties. The truth is few New Yorkers throw dinner parties like Ayo Balogun—the chef, owner, and de facto protagonist of Dept. Of Culture.
Each week Dept. Of Culture’s menu highlights a new set of dishes inspired by Ayo’s upbringing in Kwara. Unless you yourself were raised in this north-central state of Nigeria, we’re guessing you’ll leave dinner knowing more about the nuances of Nigerian regional cuisine than you did coming in. Before each course, Ayo waltzes to the front of the room and tells everyone in the restaurant what they’re about to eat, what the dish means to him, and four or five funny or insightful anecdotes that pop into his head along the way. Dept. Of Culture is part house party, part comedy show, and part church. In all scenarios, Ayo’s in charge. And that’s exactly where you’ll want him to be.
David A. Lee
Every meal starts with thin-brothed pepper soup that’s commonly eaten in Nigerian beer halls where people get sloshed on Guinness after work. This soup has enough chili peppers to make your inner pH levels boogie a little, while also feeling light enough to be slurped in 85-degree heat. Dept. Of Culture’s version uses flaky tilapia or hake and a big fistful of cilantro, both of which give your throat a little clean relief. If the Dept. Of Culture gods are on your side, you might also get to eat Kwara-style cheese that Ayo makes himself—usually over spicy red pepper and tomato sauce. (He always accompanies the dish with a Late Night-ready bit about the scary lawn signs he saw during his trip to rural Connecticut to pick up the raw milk.)
Nutty suya sometimes shows up on the menu, but Ayo swaps the traditional yaji-rubbed beef and pickled red onions for earthy trumpet mushrooms on top of cucumber slices. (Dept. Culture builds all of their dishes with a vegan base so that it’s easy to accommodate anyone who doesn’t eat meat.) No matter what variation of dishes you get the night you’re here, always expect things to wind down with sticky-fried dodo leaning against a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
In NYC, it’s not unusual to go to a prix-fixe restaurant and hear your server spit info about each dish like they’re a Vulture intern recapping a This Is Us episode. But those BTS tidbits so rarely make us laugh or feel like we've actually absorbed something worthwhile. At Dept. Of Culture, the story is part of the party—and fun is a priority, not a side effect. If you already have a friend who will host a night of giggles and homemade Nigerian cheese, congrats on your life, man. For everyone else, Dept. Of Culture should be your spot.
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David A. Lee
Eja Pelu Cilantro Osuka
Ayo jokes that he’s usually the only person in the room who would be able to stand the actual spice level of this fish pepper soup as its eaten back home in Kwara, and that he’s toned things down because he doesn’t want dinner to feel like Fear Factor. The broth will definitely not be gentle with you, but the combination of cilantro and fatty boiled fish makes this bowl bright and balanced. It's the sort of thing we'd eat after a run or even on a pool float.
David A. Lee
Wara Ati Obe
We've been talking about this cheese like it's a recently-born nephew of ours: It's perfect and brilliant, and everyone needs to know. Ayo spent the pandemic watching YouTube videos and nerding out about how to make his own wara with raw milk from Connecticut and bomubomu leaves. The result is somewhat sweet with a squeaky texture, a little like feta or paneer––not totally firm but not totally limp or gooey either. Ayo tells a story about how this cheese is unique to Kwara state, where nomadic farmers from the north bring their calves to graze. Dept. Of Culture sometimes serves wara with spicy tomato sauce, pounded yam, efo, or a combination. It's incredible.
David A. Lee
Tuwo Ati Gbegiri Ati Eja Alaran
During one of our meals at Dept. Of Culture, Ayo said, "I can't speak to other parts of Nigeria, and that's what makes it interesting." No dish feels quite as emblematic of Ayo's focus on his hometown than this corn puree and pounded yam dish topped with dried smoky fish. In Lagos, about eight hours south, the dish is served with rice instead of corn. But the combination of smoky fish and sweet-spicy corn is what makes this so memorable.
David A. Lee
Dodo Ati Ice Cream
Ayo says he used to eat this dish as a kid—and it’s perfect kid food. We see no need to complicate something so sweet and simple just to appease the adults in the room.