By ALEXANDRA GILL
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, July 20, 2019
VANCOUVER -- RESTAURANT REVIEW THE DISH
Arike 1725 DAVIE ST., VANCOUVER, 604-336-9774, ARIKERESTAURANT.CA
Cuisine: Nigerian fusion Prices: Appetizers, $4.50 to $15; mains, $14 to $35 Additional information: Open daily, 3 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. (midnight Friday and Saturday); reservations accepted.
Rating system: Casual dining 2 1/2 STARS
Here's what you need to know about Arike, a new Nigerian-fusion restaurant in Vancouver's West End.
The food - mostly modern twists on traditional Nigerian staples - is terrific. It's extremely tasty and artfully plated with extensive in-house preparations.
Even some of the more recognizable dishes - spicy jollof rice, peanut-rubbed suya beef, fried pof pof doughnuts - will be new to many. But perhaps not for much longer, as Nigerian cuisine (and the West African country's larger culture, pop music in particular) is trending in North America.
But the dreary vibe of this dark, basement hole-in-the-wall is the absolute pits.
How bad? Oh, it's so bad that on a recent Saturday night, I didn't even want to eat in the near-empty dining room (aptly called Grotto by the previous tenant) with its wall-to-ceiling wood panelling, bare-bulb lighting and indiscernible sound system.
Instead, we chose to sit by ourselves on the restaurant's equally charmless (but partially sunlit) brick patio, flanked by two loud industrial fans - a failed attempt to repel a stubborn swarm of flies.
Yes, that was the preferable option.
Maybe a few good reviews will fill the tables and give the owners enough cash flow to buy some fake plants.
Those owners are chef Sam Olayinka (whose father's side of the family is Nigerian, from Lagos) and general manager Mike Hayman, friends since they attended culinary school at the Art Institute of Vancouver. After graduation, in 2014, they both worked at Cactus Club for a bit.
Mr. Olayinka progressed to French fine dining at Bacchus in the Wedgewood Hotel; Mr. Hayman pursued a career in professional golf.
The plan for a Nigerian-inspired restaurant was one they first mapped out in a business course at school. It just so happened that when Arike opened, in mid-March, Nigerian cuisine was really heating up.
Last month, The New York Times food section ran a cover story on The 10 Essential Nigerian Recipes. In May, Kwame Onwuachi, the American-Nigerian owner of the Afro-Caribbean Kith and Kin in Washington, won the James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year.
Earlier this week, it was announced that Mr. Onwuachi's memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef, is being adapted into a movie. Perhaps, it will feature a score by Beyoncé, whose new Nigerianpop-fuelled Lion King album (separate from the Disney film soundtrack) was released Friday.
Sure, all this mainstream visibility might give Arike a boost.
But a new downtown Nigerian restaurant is compelling in its own right. Vancouver isn't exactly known for its plethora of West African cuisine. The closest Nigerian restaurant is in Surrey and it certainly doesn't serve classic cocktails or braised goat on gold spoons.
Those ornately curled spoons are the perfect bite-sized starter, filled with tender pulled goat that is slightly watery, but unapologetic in its gaminess. The amuse bouche is sprinkled with crumbed peanuts and kicked up with a drizzle of fragrantly musky ata din din pepper sauce - typically served as a chutney, but here refined into a smooth purée.
Mr. Olayinka takes the goat up another notch with dumplings (definitely not traditional). The soft wonton-like wrappers are filled with zesty goat that has been creamed with pickled peppers, spring onions and caramelized onion. Plated in a swirl off to one side, the boiled dumplings are beautifully garnished with micro greens, onion chips, a bright-tasting chili oil and soothing herbed yogurt.
A selection of flatbreads was born out of convenience, having inherited a pizza oven from the previous tenants. The chef makes the most of it by taking the base recipe for traditional agege bread and turning it into a slightly sweet dough that is as thin as a cracker with crisp bubbly edges, but as floppy in the centre as Neapolitan pie. The cured leg of lamb is obnoxiously salty. But the velvety, marrow-rich oxtail and crunchy pork belly with oozy puddles of fresh, tangy goat cheese, smears of sweet caramelized onion and spicy sparkles of pickled habanero just lights up every taste receptor and is utterly addictive.
Mr. Olayinka says he's limited by what he can source locally. He can't easily get his hands on good stockfish or fermented locust beans to make his grandmother's stews and soups.
But he is also trying to make the menu approachable to a broad cross-section of customers.
Thus, he has steaks with sandwiches with just a wee bit of spices tucked into the sauces.
He might be underestimating local palates because his more traditional dishes are the standouts.
Suya striploin skewers are thinly sliced, lightly charred, glistening with fat and deeply penetrated with a dry peanut rub that is peppery, floral, sweet and brightly gingery all at once. It melts in the mouth, far too quickly, with a mild tingle and puff of toast.
Jollof rice is stained blood-orange from a slow simmer in thick, sharply spiced tomato stew. The portion size is a bit excessive, but the long grains have a buttery sheen and fluffy texture from the perfect rice-to-sauce ratio.
The Abacha salad is a crunchy cassava coleslaw with a bold dressing that is as smoking hot as a forties starlet flicking ashes from a long cigarette holder. (The smoky tobacco flavour comes from dried crayfish toasted with Ghanaian pepper in red palm oil.)
Do not miss the chef's light and airy pofs pofs - fried balls of choux pastry that taste like heaven glazed with ginger.
A few bites of these and the party in your mouth will light up the room. You might even forget about the flies.
The chef at Arike has made the most of the previous tenant's pizza oven by creating a selection of flatbreads, including the velvety, marrow-rich oxtail and crunchy pork-belly flatbread that is topped with goat cheese, sweet caramelized onion and pickled habanero.
PHOTOS BY DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Arike, a Nigerian fusion restaurant in Vancouver's West End, is co-owned by chef Sam Olayinka, above, and general manager Mike Hayman, who have been friends since they attended culinary school together at the Art Institute of Vancouver.