The doctor studied the drinks menu slowly, as if it were a photo album plastered with yellowed Polaroids. He's a big man, with soft eyes and a broad head shaved into a geometry of black stubble fading to gray at the back of his neck. "Ahhh, chapmann," he said in his soft Nigerian accent, drawing out the last syllable with unmistakable nostalgia. You could sense his neck hairs starting to rise. "In Nigeria in the '70s and '80s, everybody was drinking chapmann."
Take away memory's prickles, and Lagosia's version of chapmann is a fizzy drink with a dark heart: a mixture of orange and lemon-lime sodas, blackcurrant syrup, and a big slug of bitters a needling astringency wrapped up in candy sweetness.
That's half the appeal of this handsome new place on University Avenue, which adds to the area's growing African dining scene. It can spark Proustian madeleine moments like my friend the doctor's, and drag first-timers to the threshold of discovery.
Chef and owner Kofo Domingo faces the dilemma of all restaurateurs hyping an unfamiliar cuisine. Do you appeal to West Africans' nostalgia for dishes they only prepare at home, or reach out to a general public potentially squeamish about exploring authenticity's outer reaches? Domingo swings to the latter, going upscale for a style you could call contemporary Nigerian fusion.
It's a style that screams out in the booth-and-window-lined dining room, done up in clayish browns that look sepia in the glow of amber-shaded pendants. You expect folk art and tribal masks in a West African place, but hung in a room of such aluminum-window sleekness they float just above cliché. It's clear Domingo wants the restaurant to be more than an oasis for homesick Nigerians.
Of course, some of the traditional stuff is already vaguely familiar. Take that chapmann. It's the kind of thing you can picture Nigeria's British overlords sipping early last century to ward off malaria, or maybe the fatigue that comes with being a colonial oppressor. The empire's batty legacy also survives in Scotch eggs: hard-boiled specimens wrapped in flattened pork sausage, twirled in crumbs, and deep-fried. Delicious in a pub munchies kind of way, a pleasure nearly as guilty as a deep-fried Snickers bar.
Then there's chin-chin, Lagosia's complimentary table munch here. The kitchen makes it from scratch: a sweetened cracker dough that tastes of mace (the spice), hacked up in tiny squares and deep-fried. You can buy little bags of it on your way out. My Nigerian friend took some home for his wife.
Nailing down that kind of authenticity makes Domingo's staff all the more interesting. Apart from a sister who hosts, the cooks and servers look as diverse as Berkeley itself. But can a staff of non-Nigerians produce food lush or gritty enough to capture the humid essence of Lagos' authentic cooking? To judge that, you've got to get your fingers dirty.
That's because Nigerians eat like Ethiopians. You eat with your right hand, sopping up stewy dishes with small pieces of some starchy, more-or-less-bland vehicle. Here it's either iyan dumplinglike balls of pounded yam or eba, the pulp from fermented and dried cassava tubers steamed as dumplings.
As far as iyan goes, wipe any thought of the marshmallow-studded turkey-day side dish from your expectations. The Nigerian stew sop isn't made from the orangy sweet potato we know, but from the crowded and confusing field of tubers known as white yams. Think floury, not sugary. The dumplings that emerge from Lagosia's steamer are like smooth, starchy mashed potatoes, but without potatoes' stiff and gluey tendencies. These were vaguely mousselike while hot, with a flavor that seemed the pure essence of starch. Like marshmallows free of sugar, if you can imagine that.
I'm less crazy for eba, especially the strongly fermented ones here. They add a prickly sourness to whatever they sop up, the way tangy injera frames the mess of stews on an Ethiopian combo plate.
Then again, Lagosia's stews might need every bit of supporting flavor that eba could bring. Don't get me wrong: The groundnut stew I dipped my iyan into was tasty, but it had a neatly circumscribed profile that came off rather disappointingly tame. The squares of stewed beef in mildly spicy tomato-laced sauce was thickened invisibly with ground peanuts. In fact, behind the faint throb of chile heat, it was all about the peanuts: a sweetness so broad and earthy it made me think of blackboard chalk.
It's partly the muted spicing that makes these dishes something less than the full-throated originals. If you're Nigerian, you're no doubt in love with spicy, but chances are you won't find love here a trio of obviously African guys asked for a side of hot sauce one night. Even the pepper soup meat broth simmered with serious chiles was only moderately hot for my doctor friend; he was hoping for something more paralyzing. And even when I asked for various dishes extra-spicy, each showed no more than a moderately searing buzz, a sign the kitchen may be turning down the heat on purpose to appease the assumed wimpiness of the general eater. But hey, this is University Avenue, where even Berkeley cat ladies in nubbly purple sweaters come to have their palates blasted on Thai and Indian dishes.
Yet even if you appreciate the toned-down sizzle, there's no getting over the meats' lack of oomph. Most stews offer a choice of meats, but it's limited to beef or chicken, and neither was quite the moist and stewy tangle of sauce-sopping fibers I'd hoped for. Options are nice, but one limited to the animal equivalent of chocolate or vanilla can seem constraining especially since goat might be Nigeria's most commonly gorged-on critter.
Goat, in fact, was the meat special one night. The faint petting-zoo pungency of the animal seemed scary-right in Mama Put stew, another tomato-based dish, but one with depth the groundnut stew seemed to lack. It had a beautiful slick of vermilion palm oil on top, and the sauce underneath had a diffuse spiciness from ginger, black pepper, and chiles, with scratchy tannins as if it'd been scorched. Raspy and homestyle, it was exactly right for the goat although the chewy, underbraised goat wasn't exactly right for it.
Even if the kitchen can't quite manage the vivid quality of the Mama Put sauce up and down the menu, Lagosia does bring an intriguing new palette of flavors to a city that prides itself on its taste for the far-flung. No hair standing up on the back of your neck, perhaps, but something you can feel good about convincing the uninitiated to try.
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