Jikoni: Pushing at the boundaries (November 2016)

The appetite for the new and the slightly different seems almost insatiable when it comes to restaurant openings. And so onto the scene comes Jikoni, which could arguably claim to be London’s first restaurant that is Swahili-influenced. Indeed, the restaurant takes its name from the local word used in the Great Lakes area of Africa for ‘kitchen.’ However, chef Ravinder Bhogal has done a very clever thing. She has taken two much-loved cuisines – British and Indian – and breathed a new breath of life into them, by infusing them with East African influences. And it works. Certainly, when a comrade and I visited for dinner on a recent weekday night, there was not a table free. I was, of course, happy to perch at the bar until our reserved place became free to sample one of the house cocktails – a chilli-infused Gin Martini, which packed the kick of alcohol with a twist of spice and an undertone of sweetness provided by the addition of orange and ginger marmalade. It also gave me the chance to survey the scene. Ms. Bhogal has certainly done an excellent job in creating a sense of homeliness, a slightly kitsch version of cool with an appropriately eclectic musical soundtrack to accompany. The menu is simple, comprising just four small plates and six mains. We opted to share ‘cauliflower popcorn’ and a ‘chargrilled concertina squid’ to start. Both arrived full of visual flair and a broad canvas of flavours. To find squid in a non-battered form was a quasi-revelation and the choice to pair it with artichoke and crumbed chorizo was a bold master-stroke that paid off. Similar plaudits to the mains of pan-fried Haloumi and a mutton Keema. I normally avoid Haloumi, finding it to be a bland offering, generally served as an after-thought to appease vegetarians. Here, however, it took on a new form, its texture integrating yet contrasting with the pilaf of freekeh, while the overall dimension of the dish was enhanced by pickled lemon (a stalwart in the Ottolenghi kitchen) and the use of dukkah (an Egyptian spice blend). Had we been a larger group, then I certainly would have been keen to see if this standard could have been maintained across all the dishes on offer – perhaps this was the chef’s logic in keeping the menu tight and focused. Certainly, seemed to push more culinary boundaries than its predecessor on the site, Roganic. However, Jikoni should not rest on its laurels. Service was distinctly lacking – hard to get waiters’ attention and irregular pouring of our wine stood out as failings. The wine list too bordered on the incomprehensible and probably needs some work. These qualms aside, the potential is here. The Swahili kitchen has arrived.