What: A ‘progressive and elevated’ West African fine dining restaurant in Fitzrovia. Akoko was supposed to open in April but was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s one of a number of contemporary West African-inspired restaurants to open in the capital over the past year or so - including Chuku’s and Chishuru - but is unquestionably the most high profile and ambitious.
Who: First time restaurateur Aji Akokomi has been working on Akoko for the best part of three years. Getting a site was not easy, with landlords and agents apparently deeming a top-end West African as a risky venture. 27-year-old William JM Chilila leads the kitchen and creates dishes based on Akokomi’s family recipes and travels across West Africa. He spent 10 years at Orrery in Kensington working his way up to sous chef and was a finalist on MasterChef: The Professionals 2018 outing.
The vibe: In a word, earthy. Conceived by René Dekker Design, the space is inspired by the ‘natural beauty, simplicity and earthiness of West African rural areas’. The walls are covered with clay that looks like it has been generously dusted with cocoa powder and the art work, ceramics and most of the furnishings offer more intriguing textures and shades of brown. Taking such a monochromatic approach to the design was risky but it works - Akoko manages to be strikingly different without being over the top and the interior's aesthetic matches the food beautifully.
The food: Akoko offers a regular tasting menu and a vegan tasting menu both priced at a reasonable £59. The former starts with three generously-sized appetisers: Ghanaian yam croquettes, mushroom puree and truffles; grilled plantain with cashew cream and spiced peanuts; and a savoury doughnut filled with braised veal cheek. All are as satisfyingly brown and earthy as the decor, and so is much of what follows. Other dishes include Nigerian pumpkin soup with calabash nutmeg, grilled lobster, popped wild rice and moringa oil served with Guinness bread; and a knock-out take on jollof rice that sees the grains cooked in a sweet pepper and umami stock, topped with a hunk of braised then seared goat and served amid a billowing cloud of smoke (below).
Smoked Jollof rice and goat ©John Carey
To drink: The wine list is being overseen (and on our visit served by) sommeliers Honey Spencer (Sager & Wilde, Noma Mexico, Gridiron) and Ania Smelskaya (Silo) and is focused on ‘organic and sustainable wines’. There’s a good deal of funky stuff, then, but the 50-strong list has a (sensible) asterisk warning system to highlight the more challenging references. It’s an ambitious list with a punchy entry-level price of £45 and £52 for white and red respectively (the tasting menu pairing is £55) that looks likely to go down well with natural wine fans thanks to it striking a good balance between cult classics and more obscure producers.
And another thing: Akoko’s billing as being ‘progressive and elevated’ is on the money. Comparisons will inevitably made between it and Ikoyi (which is named after a district of Lagos and is at least partly inspired by West African cuisine) but the two restaurants are quite different with the latter taking a far more free-form approach to its food. Akoko has come off the blocks fully formed and sharply focused; it’s heartening that a restaurant this innovative and exciting has managed to open in these very difficult times.