Cuisine – Nigerian
5777 Cleveland Ave
Open 11am – 9pm daily, 1pm – 7pm on Sunday
As we drove towards Intercontinental, the normally indefatigable food adventurer, Bethia Woolf, was looking a bit pallid. “What’s wrong?”, I ask.
“You know!”, was the curt reply.
You see, sometime during her formative years in the UK, Bethia was invited to a dinner put on by Nigerian friends of her family. This meal left scars that persist to this day – memories of flavors and textures so vividly disagreeable at the time that they can’t help but cast something of a shadow over what’s to come.
As we perused the fully (and helpfully) photo-illustrated menu, though, tensions began to subside somewhat. It certainly didn’t look too scary, and, by and large, struck me as quite appetizing. Co-owner and all around pleasant guy Olawale Ajiboye (“call me Wally”, he says) eagerly explained unfamiliar items to us.
With Olawale’s help we quickly made our selections, and the wait for our dishes was notably short.
First up was a plate of moi moi, goat meat, and jollof rice. This moi moi (also known as moinmoin) was roundly thought to be fascinating and tasty stuff – essentially slices of a bean loaf studded with hard boiled eggs and beef, the texture was light and the flavor was surprisingly complex and umami forward. It disappeared quickly. The jollof rice was similarly easy to appreciate, and this version struck us as being similar to a spicy Mexican rice with additional earthy, meaty undertones. We couldn’t argue with the flavor of the goat, but tenderness wasn’t in the cards.
Same could be said for what was, to my tastes, an (over)steamed whole fish. This came with rice and beans, which, if my eyes didn’t deceive, was actually rice and black eyed peas. Initially a somewhat unexciting side, Olawale brought out a savory, earthy red sauce for it that brought it all together swimmingly.
Our final dish, spinach and plantains, confirmed a long-held impression – African cuisines really know how to handle spinach. Solay Bistro and Taste of Zanzibar both have notable spinach dishes, and Intercontinental’s version is every bit their equal. The accompanying plantains were of the ripe, sweet, caramelized variety. If you’ve had them at any Caribbean restaurant, you’ve had this version… and that’s not a bad thing by any means. While a generous portion was a feature of this dish, it should be noted that there was a garnish of plantains on all of the dishes we tried.
Having struck up an easy rapport with Olawale, he reiterated several times his desire for honest feedback on the meal. We sheepishly inquired about the chewiness of the proteins, and he both thanked us for mentioning it and gently averred that the overt firmness was a widely held preference among West Africans. Experience with several other West African restaurants leads us to think it likely true.
We were then invited to try tastes of a couple of other menu items. Small bowls of the okra soup and egusi soup were presented.
Okra soup, we’ve come to find, is pretty consistently mucilaginous, and while the flavor was enjoyable that texture is still a tough sell. The egusi, normally eaten with pounded yam, is a curious mixture that includes melon seeds and smoked fish. Challenging in both flavor and aroma, we’ve concluded that egusi may well have been the source of Bethia’s childhood trauma.
Intercontinental’s space was a pleasant enough place to enjoy a meal, and the service was notably on the ball. While they’re no exception among African restaurants in offering dishes that can be challenging to the average American palate, our experience leads us to believe that they’ll also have something satisfying for just about everyone (including vegetarians).
Pepper soup is a weekend specialty, and something we look forward to trying out.