When Ayo Balogun opened Civil Service Coffee in Bed-Stuy back in 2013 it was a fairly straightforward coffee shop that became a neighborhood staple — until a few years ago, when a car tragically crashed through the storefront causing it to shut down. Months later, Balogun reopened the coffee shop under a new name, the Council, with a sleeker look. Here, he began to think more about how to infuse his Nigerian roots, like incorporating the red pepper and tomato-based obe sauce into his egg sandwiches — flavors he had experimented with in pop-up dinners held at his since-closed Bed-Stuy restaurant, the Trade Union Cafe, which opened in 2015.
During the pandemic, at a time when people were yearning for more events to attend safely, Balogun brought back the dinner pop-ups he came to be known for at Trade Union, which took place on the sidewalk of the relaunched Council coffee shop. On Saturday, January 15, Balogun debuts a permanent restaurant inspired by these dinners with Dept of Culture (pronounced Department of Culture), located at 327 Nostrand Avenue, near Quincy Street.
“To be honest, during the pandemic, I was really just looking for something fun to do that highlighted my culture,” says Balogun of the pop-ups. But the dinners inspired Balogun to focus more on the food he grew up with in the state of Kwara and he found himself looking for a permanent space where he could host more consistently with a Nigerian-focused menu that could bring together neighbors near and far.
With Dept of Culture, Balogun wants to showcase Nigerian cooking, with an eye for his home state in North Central Nigeria. He hopes that, at the very least, the restaurant can underscore the regional differences across the continent. “African food is so often all lumped together,” he says, exasperatedly. “There are [so many] spoken languages in Nigeria alone... think of all the different food that comes with it.”
Much is still in flux about how Dept of Culture will run day-to-day. The tasting menu format may change, but Balogun, who is currently chef and owner, plans to offer a three-dish tasting menu for $60 with a la carte options.
Balogun envisions the experience at Dept of Culture to be different than his coffee shops. Overall, the concise menu will try to emulate the feeling of cafes in Nigeria, but he’s positioned it as something more akin to a fine dining restaurant.
Throughout January, diners will find fresh fish pepper soup simmering on the stove, a dish, he says, he has fond memories of growing up that was known for being extra spicy in his home. His version uses swordfish instead of the usual tilapia or catfish.
Suya — the popular Nigerian street food of grilled skewers, often presented with red meat — is offered with a choice of mushrooms, octopus, or chicken here. However the menu evolves, Balogun says he wants to keep the dishes traditional the way “an auntie might prepare it,” but he also wants options catering to all types of diets. Hence, he decided to prepare his take on jollof rice — an add-on option to the set menu — without chicken or goat stock, to keep the dish vegan.
The last of the three courses is pounded yam with efo riro (stewed greens), wara (a milk curd recipe, particular to his native state of Kwara), with a choice of protein such as striped bass or lamb shank.
For dessert, there’s a little complimentary “surprise” of roasted plantains sauteed in maple syrup, that’s served with ice cream.
For each of Balogun’s hospitality ventures, he sees the food and beverages as only the start. Dept of Culture’s name nods to Balogun’s upbringing in a family that worked for various arms of the Kwara government. He hopes the new restaurant will be a place where people can come to eat, as well as share art and talk politics. To that end, the art will also rotate throughout the space and a record player will spin old Nigerian albums.
With only 16 seats at the restaurant — split between a communal table and a few counter seats — the intention is for even the “most shy” patrons, Balogun tells Eater, to get a chance to meet someone new.
To start, Balogun will offer two dinner seatings per night — likely at 6 and 8 p.m. — that must be reserved in advance on Tock (that will shortly go live) or via Instagram DMs. The restaurant will be open from Tuesdays to Saturdays, with breakfast — open without needing a reservation — to follow.