Resoundingly fed: Hearty portions at Nigerian restaurant 805 ( ES Magazine )
ES FOOD newsletter
I don’t know if I will ever fully acclimatise to West African cuisine’s continued new life as a Hot Dining Thing.
Where once the muttered rumour that Nigerians ate ‘bright orange rice’ was enough to draw suspicious revulsion from a Jamaican girl at my school, now Spitalfields office workers queue at Jollof Box for proudly fluoro, steaming cartons of the stuff. Irish-Ghanian chef Zoe Adjonyoh is a mainstay on cooking shows, and Ikoyi’s elegant renditions of fried plantain and egusi soup in St James’s Market have deservedly earned it a Michelin star.
But before these modernisers there was the Old Kent Road institution that is 805. For almost 20 years, its faded maroon awnings have heralded a place where diverse hordes of African food lovers go to satisfy their cravings. For mushed piles of intricately seasoned beans, fryer-hot clubs of yam or silky globs of whipped cassava flour slopped in rich, dripping stews. This, famously, is where John Boyega brought his Star Wars castmate Harrison Ford for a belt-straining initiation into Nigerian culture. And it is also where, a few Sundays ago, I dragged eight family members for what, cultural bias be damned, may be one of the more special, sneakily impressive meals I’ve had this year.
Venturing beyond the 805-branded windows (805 is named after its door number) we found a lively post-church crowd in a space that favours faux-opulent modernity over African tradition. The two main areas are each bathed in weirdly clubby blue lights, piped with Afrobeats, furnished with high-backed banquettes and gilded mirrors, and stalked by slightly harangued-looking servers in white shirts. Mains on the exhaustive menu of Nigerian crowd-pleasers can climb to the £20 mark, but the fact that portions are of the ‘visible-from-space’ variety means abundant leftovers are almost inevitable.
Faux-opulence: The interior of 805
Boli was planks of roasted plantain, grill-kissed outside, tender, steamed and sweet within. The suya beef — barbecued thin strips of meat marinated in a ferocious, peanut-laced chilli powder — offered the perfect pleasure-pain see-saw of overwhelming spice and the compulsion to keep eating. Fish pepper soup, meanwhile, was atypically delicate: a thick, flaking raft of tilapia in a vast, fragrant broth humming with ginger.
There were mounds of jollof, of course, tangy and slightly smoky with a blooming lip-prickle of heat, wreathed in fried plantain, chicken and valiant suggestions of salad. Crimson tomato stew came ladled on chicken or daubed on fat prawns, with the necessary swell of Scotch bonnet and a detectable undertow of cooked-down dried shellfish. My egusi soup was a beef-studded, thrillingly unattractive expanse of melon seeds and spinachy bitterleaf that came with a creamy speed bump of mash-like pounded yam. Hypnotic, dense, nap-inducing. ‘Monika’ fish, a dramatic whole grilled tilapia beneath a rugged hot sauce, is famous here but struck me as a bit of an overcooked chore, while the stewed beans were — and you’ll have to let me have just one of these — nowhere near as good as my mum’s.
Essentially, while new-wave West African chefs deal in surprise and playful twists, 805 represents a comforting sort of stasis; familiar hits of starch and sauce rendered as the almost idealised vision of what they should be. As the kids finished caramel-trickled ice creams, we gathered up our many (many) doggie bags and trooped out, past a gang of silver-bearded guys convening noisily over palm wine. And then, outside, a man appeared to be running back to a waiting taxi laden with his takeaway order. Consider this a warning. 805 excels at the sort of unusual, gratifying experience that can get under your skin and lead to unplanned Uber detours. You will leave resoundingly fed. And maybe a little bit addicted.
1 Beef suya £15
1 Roast plantain £6.50
1 Fish pepper soup £14
1 Pounded yam and egusi beef £16
1 Monika fish £19
1 Tiger prawns £20
1 Adult jollof rice and chicken £14
1 Beans £14
4 Children’s jollof rice and chicken £32
2 Large Star beer £12
1 Jug orange juice £5
1 Jug apple juice £5
4 Ice cream £28
1 English breakfast tea £2.50
805 Old Kent Road, London, SE15 1NX, 805restaurants.com
The 55 must-try dishes in London