Bisi African Restaurant — Nigerian Flavour

Bisi African Restaurant

One thing I like about Instagram is that I get a lot of recommendations and prompts for different restaurants throughout the metropolitan Chicago area. I am aware that Chicago proper is considerably more culturally diverse than presented via media, but a lot of cultural representation extends to the far suburbs as well. One Nigerian restaurant I have seen posting on Instagram is Bisi African Restaurant. With a location in Schaumburg at 853 S. Roselle Road, I felt I needed to sample from them considering two of my favourite Nigerian restaurants on Chicago’s North Side recently closed their doors.

Suya

Suya

The inside has an open floor plan that eliminates any feeling of being cramped. There are several tables to accommodate parties of four or more and booths that will accommodate up to four in a party. But it’s the food that draws your attention. Since I was going to try two entrées, I started with a suya to whet the palate. This was a platter of skewered steak served with onions, a favourite street food item, all authentic. In addition to the suya, I had moi moi, a rather tasty bean pudding prepared with black-eyed peas, onions, and fresh ground peppers, again all authentic. I have a tickler to myself to have meat pies the next time I return.

Egusi with Fish

Egusi with Fish

The server had told me that preparation for the entrées was going to take half an hour and I was okay with that, knowing that nothing was going to be microwaved or warmed up and then sent from the kitchen. True enough, everything was cooked to order. The egusi with fish screamed “just like they eat it in Nigeria.” The melon seeds had been ground up nicely and spiced nicely. The whiting was quite fleshy, yet still had bones in. With fufu in hand, I ate all of it without use of table utensils, and I do mean all of it. The second entrée was a plate of ayamase, my favourite and most addictive Nigerian dish ever. Also referred to as ofada stew, Bisi African Restaurant cooked it spicy, which means they serve it “just like they eat it in Nigeria.” In keeping with being true to the recipe, there were beef, tripe, dry fish, and stock fish in the dish. I recommend this highly.

Ayamase

Ayamase

Bisi African Restaurant is a bit of a drive from Chicago. It is worth the trip out to the Northwest Suburbs, though. I can vouch for the food being absolutely lip-smacking, although there are several more menu items that I would love to try. One thing I also like is that the service is outstanding. Granted there was one server working the floor, every table in the restaurant received attention. Good service seems to be a dying trait in the restaurant industry and when you receive top service and see it delivered wholesale to all customers, that makes the dining experience that more enjoyable. I may not make the hour-long drive outside of Chicago, but when I do, it will be back to Bisi African Restaurant.

Bisi African Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Little Unicoco, Big Taste in Authenticity

Little Unicoco

A few weeks ago during lunch, I was reminiscing with a good friend about my days when I lived in Rogers Park. The neighbourhood has since changed. Old businesses have closed. New businesses have opened. The changing demographics of the old neighbourhood are bringing a new vibe. And with all of these changes is a wave of restaurants with international flare. My friend had mentioned that a new Nigerian restaurant opened next to my favourite coffeehouse. So, this week I was off to Little Unicoco at 1631 W. Howard Street.

Plantain Chips

Plantain Chips

Arriving during the mid afternoon, I had a seat in what is called the market area of the restaurant. The larger lounge area was on the other side of the walled partition. After placing my order, I had fried, sweet plantain chips. Forget about potato chips and fancy chips touting less fat and healthy options. The all-natural sweetness and pop in the fried plantains were a winning combination. I was glad to find that the market portion of the restaurant has these lovelies bagged for take-away.

Goslings Ginger Beer

Goslings Ginger Beer

Much like the most recent Doctor Who, I’m not always a good man. Having inquired about whether there was ginger beer for imbibing, the server informed me that there was. She even poured the beverage with care, as if pouring beer. But this was the good kind of beer. Nothing like the fizzy pop that you buy off the shelves at your local grocer, this reminded me of homemade ginger beer, the variety that people take time to boil with real ginger that they leave in and you get to enjoy somewhat as candy when you’re done downing the ginger beer. Being bad, I sent a photo to my food advisor, knowing how much she loves “real” ginger beer. I imagined her shaking her fist at her cellphone before she sent a text back to me with three words: Don’t tease me!

Meat Pie and House Sauce

Meat Pie and House Sauce

One of my favourite Nigerian snack foods is a meat pie. Bread is a vice and the crust in Nigerian meat pies is well past addictive. Filled with a nice amount of minced, ground beef, this is a food addict’s dream along with a tomato based hot sauce. By the third bite, I had decided that I would order several for take-away so that I could have them for breakfast over the next few days. The caveat is I will devour them all in one day.

Suya

Suya

Next to the table was suya. This is another snack food that screams “have at it and know that I am the best barbecue ever.” Sliced beef with Yaji spices on onions and tomatoes, the ginger from the ginger beer combined with the spices on the suya transported me mentally back to Lagos with my university classmates who knew where to find all the good street food.

Egusi and Pounded Yam

Egusi and Pounded Yam

The final dish was one that I have loved with rice. But on this visit, I had to lose my Westernisms and devour this dish with pounded yam rather than with the assistance of table utensils. Egusi soup. This bowl of spicy, pounded egusi seeds filled with fish and beef is my favourite Nigerian dish, with non-vegetarian pepper soup and isi ewu coming in next. I have enjoyed the spicy kick of egusi soup with rice whenever I had a chance to have a bowl placed in front of me, however, there was something about eating it with the pounded yam that made it taste like I was eating something from home.

Chin Chin with Nutmeg

Chin Chin with Nutmeg

As a wrap-up, the server asked if I would like to sample a dessert. You have not had a tastier snack until you have had a fried pastry called chin chin. I sampled some that had been flavoured with nutmeg. I remembered being gifted some from a classmate’s mother who prepared some for a care pack when I was leaving Nigeria to return to New York for an intern when I was in university. It was as if I had gone back to Ibadan in 1989 to relive that flight again.

Chin Chin

Chin Chin

Little Unicoco packs a huge punch with authenticity. Granted I went earlier in the day well before the dinner crowd arrived, the service was still top. The atmosphere was welcoming and even the owner walked to every table and inquired as to whether this was everyone’s first time having Nigerian food and if there were any answers he could provide. Now I have another go-to Nigerian restaurant in Chicago. Big ups, Little Unicoco.

Little Unicoco Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Back to Africa Through Bolat

Bolat African Cuisine

The beautiful thing about Skype is that you can talk to friends and family, near and very far, free. Take for instance, I was having a video chat with an old graduate school friend. And what should he be doing while we were in conversation? He was eating. If you have only looked at some authentic Nigerian dishes, you may wince a little. Nothing is actually cute on the plate. But if you have had some Nigerian cuisine dancing around on your tongue, your mouth waters at the mention of it. Well, as much as I wanted to lick the monitor, I settled on going to Bolat African Cuisine at 3346 N. Clark Street later to sort out my craving.

Hibiscus Mojito

Hibiscus Mojito

Plantains and Peanut Sauce

Plantains and Peanut Sauce

During this visit, I was in my usual mood of not wanting to make any decisions about what to eat. I told the server, who I found out was also the owner, that I wanted two appetizers, two entrées, one dessert, and cocktails for pairing. See what my Skype experience had done to my appetite? For my first cocktail, I had a hibiscus mojito. I made a mental note to return in the future and request a flight of mojitos because the hibiscus mojito transported me mentally to a climate considerably warmer than the 40 degrees we had in Chicago. To add to the mojito, there were plantains with peanut sauce. What a combination. What a perfect start.

Meat Pie

Meat Pie

The next appetizer was a meat pie. This reminded me so much of Jamaican beef patties. The pastry casing was not as flaky, but it definitely was tempting enough that I ordered several for take-away. Served with a homemade hot sauce, I’m going to have to admit that I have a love affair with Nigerian meat patties. If you order ten to take home with you, there really is no other indication of an addiction that you need.

Peanut Soup with Fish

Peanut Soup with Fish

The first entrée was truly cultural on two fronts — Nigerian and Ghanaian. I had peanut soup and it was served with snapper. Because I wanted to enjoy the dish in a proper way, I had fufu with it. No fork. No spoon. There were fufu and my fingers. I have said on multiple occasions that I do not like peanuts, Sam I Am, but I can eat peanut soup until it hurts. My palate welcomes spicy food, so I had the peanut soup prepared mildly peppery. The fish was seasoned well with various herbs and prepared such that the outer texture was slightly crunchy while the meat was succulent. Truly my African half showed itself because I completed the dish with the fufu, not once using a utensil.

L'amuse

L’amuse

Queen Nefertiti

Queen Nefertiti

Surprisingly, I had room for another full entrée. In preparation for the next dish, I had a l’amuse of skirt steak, tomato, and grilled onion, served with peanuts crushed to a powder. Not dainty like the amuse-bouche that you may get a fancy restaurants, but definitely tastier, I could have had this as a full plate. And to make moving into the next entrée that more inviting, I had a cocktail of hibiscus, ginger liqueur, and champagne. I understand why the name of the drink is Queen Nefertiti.

Egusi with Fish

Egusi with Fish

The second main course was another authentic Nigerian dish called egusi. This was also served with snapper. My friend who I was on Skype with, who happens to be Yoruba, had prepared some egusi when he was visiting the latter part of 2014. The egusi at Bolat was reminiscent of the variety that my Igbo friends prepared during our “cultural” dinners. Not one to complain about too much seafood in my diet, the snapper was tender and light enough that the egusi was still the star. And rather than indulging myself with more fufu, I had a scoop of jollof rice that I needed the recipe for.

Salt and Pepper Highball

Salt and Pepper Highball

Ice Cream Covered in Coconut

Ice Cream Covered in Coconut

The final course was in keeping with not letting a customer leave without giving a rating of 15 out of 10 on the scale. I had a cocktail called the Salt and Pepper Highball. I initially thought the salt and pepper garnish around the rim of the glass was different, but the gin, grapefruit juice, fresh lemon juice, simply syrup in the glass made it worthwhile. Accompanying this dessert cocktail was a scoop of vanilla ice cream covered in coconut,, topped with an apricot slice, and drops of honey raspberry reduction. The marriage of the cocktail and the ice cream was a match made in heaven.

Bolat African Cuisine is more like a lounge. The atmosphere is so laid back that the dining experience is considerably more relaxed than what you would get at a regular restaurant. For those who have been to Iyanzé in Chicago’s Uptown, which I blogged in 2011, you will not be disappointed by the offerings from the kitchen. Part of this is because the owner of Bolat African Cuisine also owns Iyanzé. Good food should never be rushed, and nothing comes from the kitchen in a snap, as it is prepared to order. Go. Sit. Relax. Enjoy. As for me, I need to Skype with my friend again and not to have my food alarm go off but so I can get some ideas of what else I should try — perhaps something cultural that is not on the menu.

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Nigerian Pop-up Dinner, Tunde Wey Style

During this past summer, I got turned on to the concept of pop-up art galleries while at one of the many street festivals that Chicago hosts. Empty stores that had not been repurposed for the Logan Square revitalization effort had been used as temporary showcase areas for artists in the Chicago metropolitan area. It was a rather nice way for local artists to get some initial exposure without having to pay heavy costs to a gallery for display of their works. Shortly after the pop-up art galleries at the festival, I started seeing references to pop-up retail shops. And recently, I got an invitation to a pop-up Nigerian dinner. Not one to turn down Nigerian food, I accepted the invitation without pause.

Isi Ewu Pepper Soup with Goat
Egusi Frejon

Tunde Wey, a restaurateur from Detroit, MI, was in Chicago visiting with some friends who had graciously hosted the Chicago leg of a tour that he was doing across several cities. His tour route also consisted of New Orleans, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and New York City. Those who attended any of the dinner gatherings were in for some damn good Nigerian food that they would otherwise have to go to Nigerian to indulge or find some Nigerians in America who would be open to preparing some authentic dishes.

The motley crew in Chicago was treated to isi ewu, pepper soup with goat, egusi, and frejon with plantains. The isi ewu was spiced goat’s head. Those who love spicy food would enjoy this without a second thought. The pepper soup with goat in it was a grand hit. Eyes were watering. Beads of sweat were on foreheads. Everyone was going back to the pot for seconds and thirds. And had I not been so into my fourth bowl, I would have gotten back to the pot in time to get a proper photo. Another favourite was egusi, a dish prepared with ground melon seeds, spinach, and crawfish. A dish that I did not photograph because, again, I was caught up in the rapture of the whole dining scene, was jollof rice. This rice pilaf is common to the West African palate and unlike British chef Jamie Oliver — you must watch the embedded YouTube video to get the joke — this jollof rice would make any West African in the diaspora homesick. With a finale of frejon, this dish of mashed black beans and fried plantains would actually make anyone hanker for Africa.

The next day after the dinner, I looked up pop-up dinners and discovered that I am rather late finding out about them. The Moroccan dinner I had attended about a year ago felt more like a showcase of the chef’s cooking talents among friends he knew, so pop-up never crossed my mind. But this concept is more popular in Chicago than I thought. Honestly, I think that it is a fantastic way for the chef to get exposure to the diners. The experience engaging people while cooking removes the “oh, they’re strangers” atmosphere and creates friendships that otherwise would never come to fruition. Tunde Wey certainly made the dining aspect of the night one worth bottling. And his interpersonal touch also left us with our bellies hurting from so much laughter. For one night, a group of total strangers had humour, some Nigerian food from “home,” and some “real” jollof rice.

Jamie Oliver, what in Dante’s Inferno were you thinking?

Iyanzé — Roots

Iyanzé

When I began my undergraduate studies at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, in the mid 80’s, little did I know that the mathematics department and the computer science department were dominated by African and Caribbean students. Being one of the few students then who chose to play hard ball by pursuing a double major in both of those concentrations, I was immersed in the African and Caribbean cultures, being incredibly comfortable in both since I am a product of the two anyway. So, we all studied together. We encouraged each other in our educational track. We formed support groups. We challenged each other. We had fellowship. And oh did we eat together. After long hours of going over lessons, assignments, and preparing for tests, there were equal moments spent in kitchens and over grills having flavourful smoke dancing in the air, food swirling in our bellies, and happiness in surplus.

Today was one of those days that had my days of yore flicker through my mind. The visits to Africa in between summer intern assignments and returning to school. The cultural experience that I would not have had otherwise with other students if I had not bonded with my fellow brothers and sisters. With us all being scattered across the globe and seeing each other on occasional visits, I missed that. And I thought of the dinners that became regular for us. Recent conversation over Skype with one of my greatest college friends brought to mind that I should seek out a Nigerian restaurant in Chicago. Considering Chicago’s Uptown and Edgewater neighbourhoods are teeming with representation from Africa, I knew that there would be no problem finding at least one Nigerian eatery to my liking. True to the Uptown community, there are three all in walking distance of each other. I chose Iyanzé Restaurant at 4623 N. Broadway Street, just off the Wilson Street Red Line stop.

Jollof Rice and Plantains

Jollof Rice and Plantains

With a layout much like a cafeteria, Iyanzé is a laid back kind of restaurant. You order at the counter, selecting a variety of menu items that have been prepared fresh and authentically Nigerian. After looking at the menu, I remembered what my fellow classmates had cooked in their kitchens during our study sessions. I recalled a lot of what I ate to excess in Lagos in 1989. I can still taste remnants of the memories of dishes prepared by many of my Nigerian friends over the years. And I chose four dishes that called out to me and one very daring one that will probably be my only experimental dish for the year — a bit too early to say since it is still January.

Pepper Soup

Pepper Soup

For starting out, and I shall give the daring dish upfront, I had beef pepper soup. Tasty, so very tasty, with beef cubes cooked to the point where you could cut them with plastic forks. Spicy enough to clear my breathing that had been blocked with the cold weather outside. But there is a certain ingredient that I had forgotten until I put my spoon in for the first scoop: tripe. Normally, I would give an exaggerated Ugh! and act up. However, the tripe had been cooked so that it did not have the consistency of a rubber band and it had been seasoned such that it did not taste like a rubber band either. Not that I will have a want for beef pepper soup every time I go into a Nigerian restaurant, but I must say, honestly, that the soup at Iyanzé was a pleasant surprise. The jollof rice was not sticky, which is not a bad thing at all, and it was not overdone or undercooked. Add plantains to that and you have the combination of a winner. Where things really hit a happy tilt was with the tilapia in a red sauce. Granted the tilapia was not filleted. There are bones, bones, small bones, clear bones, fine bones, and more bones in the fish. But the meat, the freshness, the plumpness made the tilapia so much more appetizing. And I washed it all down with a ginger bear. Bliss.

Tilapia in Red Sauce

Tilapia in Red Sauce

After doing all but licking the plates and the soup bowl, I decided to see if I could get a dessert. Unfortunately, Iyanzé does not have dessert fare. That was fine because I saw that they had a certain item that would be fantastic for breakfast. I ordered a few meat pies — pastries filled with seasoned ground beef — for take-away. Before I walked back out into the frosty evening, I opted for another ginger beer. Once you have one good ginger beer, they tend to be rather addictive thereafter. And because it seemed to have been taking rather long for me to get the meat pies and the ginger beer, mostly because the woman behind the counter and I were laughing and joking with each other, the woman behind the kitchen window yelled out, “Hey, you Ghanaian boy, my daughter is not on the menu,” and then a host of individuals in the kitchen started laughing while the daughter was blushing. It was a good laugh for all of us, something very common that I find very inviting within African and Caribbean cultures.

Meat Pie

Meat Pie

Before I went to Iyanze, I had read some reviews on a few of the esoteric websites. It pays to put a lot of commentary into perspective because a good bit of the reviews seemed to have come from individuals who were of the suburban ilk who cringe at anything remotely different from chicken fried steak and potatoes. Iyanzé is not a fancy sit-down-and-you-will-be-served restaurant. The authenticity cannot be beaten and where Iyanzé stands out is in the food. Having had food prepared by great friends from Nigeria and having had my feet under numerous tables in Lagos, I can attest that Iyanzé is doing it right. Incredibly reasonable prices make the visit even more worthwhile. You can go anywhere and get mediocre. But you get the absolute best at Iyanzé. You get to experience a lot of what made my undergraduate days so enjoyable.

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