Akara, London SE1: ‘Modern, playful, imaginative – a dig-in type of dinner’ – restaurant review | Food

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On the edge of Borough Market, hiding slightly up a back lane and away from the £12 aubergines, the pork chops that come with CVs and the madding foodie crowds clutching their spirulina smoothies, is a new west African restaurant, Akara. Once upon a time, Borough Market was a weekend affair, but now it’s a genteel, organic sort of bedlam every single day. It’s the perfect place to open somewhere like Akara, the second restaurant from Aji Akokomi, who in 2020 opened Akoko, a fine-dining excursion around the owner’s west African heritage that, to my mind, is well worthy of a Michelin star.

Akara’s tiger prawn akara: ‘Best tackled with both hands.’

Akara is Akoko’s more casual younger sibling, a place where newbies to west African cuisine can dangle a toe, while more well-versed diners can come to judge the chef’s take on efik coconut rice in a smart, beautifully lit industrial-chic space. Actual akara are, of course, on the menu, too. They could, roughly speaking, be called fritters, though I’d compare them more to fried fairy cakes – spongey, golden, almost resembling financiers, although in truth these particular buns, which inspired the Brazilian street-food snack, the acarajé, are made from loved and much-laboured-over black-eye beans. The beans are soaked, shelled, whisked, pulverised and transformed into a light batter before being deep-fried until golden. In the wrong hands (namely, my clumsy shovels), akara would be a disaster, but here they are plump, voluptuous and stuffed with the likes of sweet, spiced barbecued tiger prawns, soft, yielding braised ox cheek, barbecued wild mushrooms or a seared hand-dived Orkney scallop. Each akara comes in its own little box, so don’t order them to share, as we did. They are best tackled with both hands and accompanied by the house scotch-bonnet soda, a non-alcoholic beverage offering all the elegance of a cool, clear, long soda with a heat rating of about 200,000 units on the Scoville scale.

The Senegalese hot sauce that comes with Akara’s Lagos chicken is ‘singing with habanero chilli peppers and garlic’.

We visited on a midweek lunchtime, when the place was pleasingly busy, possibly because so many of London’s smart restaurants don’t seem to open until Wednesday evenings at the moment. As a result, Akara was packed with solo food obsessives photographing their lunches and smart business groups enjoying the plantain old fashioneds, the cacao and date negronis and the short wine list. The food is hearty rather than fancy; if, for example, you order the Lagos chicken from the larger plates section of the menu, what turns up is a whole, splayed, spatchcocked poussin drizzled with vibrant orange sosu kaani, a Senegalese hot sauce singing with habanero chilli peppers and garlic. There’s also grilled pollock with a yassa sauce made from deeply caramelised onion and lemon, and a vegan dish of grilled cabbage in carrot sauce and herby oil. This isn’t stand-on-ceremony food, this is a dig-in type of dinner – although your servers will happily explain the cooking process if you ask them to.

‘Curiously delicate and deft’: Akara’s plantain with grilled octopus is ‘the standout dish’.

The standout dish for me was a side of fried plantain with octopus, served in a curiously delicate and deft way, and made lively with pepper relish. The efik rice is pale, having been simmered in chicken broth and coconut, and, if you like, comes topped with seared mackerel. If you want something green on the table to make you feel healthy, there is a salad of baby gem, crisp shallots and spiced peanuts to pair with your Senegalese-sauced poussin.

This is a confident restaurant taking its first tottering steps, offering modern, playful, imaginative riffs on food that clearly means so much to Akokomi. It is no small feat to trailblaze in this way, bringing much-loved dishes to an audience that may never have eaten them before, and hoping both to delight and to broaden horizons. Akoko, for me, was groundbreaking, and the more casual, everyday Akara is a spiriting slice of joy for London’s dining scene.

‘Cool, clear, long’ … and very spicy: Akara’s scotch bonnet soda.

We finished with tamarind date sponge cake with tonka bean cream, which was kind of inevitable from the moment I saw it on the menu, because I am rather fixated by the richness of the tonka bean and the slightly macabre aspect that, in the wrong hands, it can be poisonous; in fact, it has been banned in the US since 1954 due to, ahem, casualties. I trusted Akara not to kill me, though. Let’s face it, the paperwork would be arduous. Less brave sorts can go for the coconut and lime sorbet, which is a citric blast to send you on your way feeling fully awakened.

Akara is worth visiting if only for the dish the place is named after. Be honest, you’re never going to shell those black-eye beans yourself.

  • Akara Arch 208, 18 Stoney Street, London SE1, 020-3861 5190. Open Tues-Sat, lunch noon-4pm, dinner 6-11pm. From about £40 a head, plus drinks and service


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