May 26, 2024

CPS

Travel Adventure

Nigerian Food with a Little Times Square Glitz

4 min read

Some skepticism is warranted whenever a restaurant has a Times Square address. “You know, I suggested we come to this restaurant kind of as a joke,” the writer and recipe developer Yewande Komolafe told me recently, spooning out a serving of pepper soup at Lagos TSQ, a three-story Nigerian restaurant-cum-night club on Seventh Avenue near Forty-eighth Street, a block from the TKTS booth and just across the street from the enormous M&M’s store. I had asked Komolafe, who is the author of the new cookbook “My Everyday Lagos,” to bring me to one of her favorite Nigerian spots in the city. It turns out that list is short—practically nonexistent.

Lagos TSQ
727 Seventh Ave.
(Dishes $12-$90.)

The Nigerian essayist Yemisí Aríbisálà has described the nation’s food as “not yet given its due.” She writes, “Our soups are some of the best-kept secrets in the world. While the rest of the world has gone on and on about their cuisines, we have remained mute, with our mouths full of food.” Komolafe explained that she tends not to find what she’s looking for at most West African restaurants in New York: the flavors are dulled to cater to unfamiliar palates, or the food is wrapped in a fairy-tale cultural narrative that speaks past actual West Africans, playing instead to the expectations of (mostly white) cultural tourists. (She admitted that she hadn’t yet visited my favorite Nigerian restaurant, Brooklyn Suya, a street-food counter in Crown Heights.) This was her first visit to Lagos TSQ, and she had been pessimistic. “But this food is good,” she said. “It’s good good.”

The restaurant’s beef suya and a bowl of exemplary pepper soup.

Nigerian cuisine is not a monolith—the foodways of the Yoruba are distinct from those of the Igbo; the dishes of Calabar aren’t those of Lagos. Still, the country’s expanse of stews and fritters and braises are tied together by a vividly flavorful pantry: heady spices, preserved seafood, the seductive florality of red palm oil. The bowl of pepper soup that Komolafe and I had before us was note-perfect: a thin, opaque broth sultry with spice and heat, with pieces of tender goat meat hidden beneath the surface. Every cook has their own blend of spices in pepper-soup seasoning: vanilla-like uda pods; the mellow heat of grains of paradise; floral uziza, or African black pepper; a whisper of bouillon powder. “I’m surprised by this soup,” Komolafe said. “This is the real thing. The spices, even the bouillon, that’s how they make it for real!”

Komolafe was born in the Nigerian capital, and came to the U.S. as a teen-ager, on a student visa. After graduating from college, she enrolled in culinary school, where a scheduling miscommunication led to her visa status being revoked; she remained in the country as an undocumented immigrant, until marrying her husband a decade later. (I first met Komolafe years ago at Saveur magazine, where I was an editor and she worked in the test kitchen.) During her undocumented years, she couldn’t risk returning to Nigeria; finally visiting again in 2018, two decades after leaving, with her papers in hand, she discovered that the Lagos that lived in her memories collided with a place that had changed in her absence. In “My Everyday Lagos,” she compares the city—the most populous in Africa, and a cultural and financial epicenter—to the tumult of a restaurant kitchen: “Its energy is overwhelming, its chaos and disorder acutely unnerving. But once you adjust to it, you feel as though it heightens your senses.”

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Lagos the restaurant has an overwhelming energy, too. The ground-floor dining room is walled in royal-purple panelling flecked with gold; the bar is longer, somehow, than you might ever expect a bar to be, its endless line of gold bar stools shining like mirrors. A steady flow of tourists and influencer types strike practiced poses before a wall of faux greenery, into which the name of the restaurant is set in letters of reflective gold. Enormous televisions show soccer, cricket, and football. “Meet me at Lagos,” a purple neon sign set over a staircase glows. There, on party nights, a bouncer might be stationed, to make sure that only the most soigné are permitted upstairs, which is a whole scene unto itself: guest d.j.s, bottle service, sparklers.

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