Shortly after 8:30 p.m. on a recent Friday, a staffer unlocked the entrance to Dept of Culture in Bed-Stuy, a prix fixe dinner party of a restaurant that showcases the nourishing and spicy foodways of North Central Nigeria. The setting is distinctly cozier and chattier than more formal tasting menu spots.
A host checked in 16 people, assigning most of them seats around a single communal table. Patrons carefully squeezed into place on picnic benches. A few minutes later, chef Ayo Balogun began handing out bowls of pepper soup. And then, almost with the precision of a symphony orchestra beginning a recital, everyone began eating at once.
All of a sudden, someone coughed. This tame-looking rendition of eja tutu, as it’s known, breathes fire.
Conversation receded. Spoons clanged against bowls. Diners slurped and sipped. The light fish broth is the canvas for incendiary ata rodo peppers, among the world’s spiciest. The warmth in the back of one’s throat slowly grows to a flame. It feels as if you’ve inhaled a speck of bonfire ash. Now it’s your turn to cough. And the chiles start jabbing the front of the tongue too. Beer is consumed. Breaths are taken. Sprigs of cilantro inject the flavor of freshly cut grass. A small filet of pink-skinned snapper adds a bit of neutral sustenance. But really, this dish is about heat as a distilled flavor. It strikes hard, then disappears.
Pepper soup is a familiar enough dish at restaurants in Brooklyn and New Jersey, with rustic versions often studded with goat or tilapia. The preparation here is partly what sets the dish apart: Balogun says he clarifies his soup more than others do, to the point where it’s only faintly cloudy. But there’s another factor at play that heightens the experience: the communal table. Almost everyone sits facing or within eyeshot of strangers. Some patrons steal glances as folks react differently to the soup, watching their expressions as they tuck into something they’ve had hundreds of times as a daily staple — or never before.
Balogun deserves credit for running a tasting menu spot with just two induction burners and a tiny, $400 convection oven. But the real triumph is that he’s created a high-end New York buka of sorts, a chic counterpart to the largely accessible social and culinary hubs of Nigeria, places where folks mingle under canopies or inside bare-bones restaurants, often for tasty street fare. At Dept of Culture, Balogun tells me that he wants to showcase a more sophisticated version of regional Nigerian food than is often found here, and he bristles against more generic terms like African or even West African, especially in a city where, he argues, folks can name regional Italian pizza varieties with ease.
You don’t drop by Dept of Culture casually; diners prepay for the nonrefundable, no-choice, four-course dinner ($75) a month or so advance, just like at scores of other fine dining establishments. Still, the buka ethos remains. Born out of a pop-up series, the restaurant aims to “explore an evening of conversation in an intimate setting,” per its website. That’s the restaurant’s way of telegraphing the fact that you’ll end up spending more time listening to the chef’s disquisitions into hyper-regional Nigerian fare and talking with fellow patrons than actually eating all the wonderful compositions. And that’s okay.
Dept of Culture is a love letter to the communal table. What sometimes feels like a way to squeeze more money out of patrons at glitzy hot spots comes across here as an actual effort to promote socializing. It’s also a clever way to get folks to relearn the joys of interacting with strangers, something we’ve all done a bit less of these past few years. This isn’t a long marble bar top with cushy stools where folks swing by to watch chefs in starchy whites perform silently. This isn’t an omakase where pieces of nigiri sushi come out every three and a half minutes. This is where you’re sitting as close to strangers as your own dining companions; think the F train during rush hour, but with more conversation. This is where you’ll wait 10 or more minutes between courses and field “so where are you from?” questions from half the restaurant. My advice is that bringing good beers and handing them out is the way to make friends fast.
A light, citrusy IPA — the meal is BYO — turned out to be a solid pairing for the cheese course, as the frothy beverage helped cut through the rich fats. Balogun turns raw milk into fried curds, letting them act as soft sponges for obe ata, a spicy roasted red pepper sauce. He might then send out iyan, a mound of pounded cassava (sort of like fufu) that he tops with smoked fish, melon seeds, fermented locust beans, and tomato sauce. What results is something that sports the pleasant grit of mashed potatoes and the stretch of glutinous rice. The fish and locust beans add both funk and intense umami. On certain nights, I hear Balogun serves octopus suya, a riff on Nigeria’s famously tongue-singeing skewers.
If you’re not too familiar with Nigerian cheese curds or okele, don’t worry — Balogun has you covered. The chef doesn’t just issue tableside descriptions, but impromptu and discursive speeches that can last well over five minutes. He talks about his native Kwara State, cattle herders, the regional nuances of Nigeria’s breathtakingly diverse foodways, the famed jollof rice dish, his family, his youth, and how he once tried to use Luke Skywalker’s “force” to catch catfish as a child. He did not catch the fish. He asks if there are other Nigerians in the room. There are.
At a certain point he reminds you to start eating. Then he keeps talking.
Balogun winds down the evening with vanilla ice cream, a stark white counterpoint to its beige accompaniment, a bruleed plantain. The warm banana is more starchy and sticky than sweet; the burnished exterior adds a gentle crunch, while the frozen treat adds a bit of sugar and chill.
The chef continues to talk as the plates of dessert vanish, and opens up the floor for questions and answers. There are many questions. Who is that on the wall, that photo over there? His 99-year-old grandmother, who, he stresses, likes to party. Balogun’s voice then turns more contemplative, as if he’s a pastor bringing his sermon to a close. He says he feels as if we’ve all created the energy of a proper buka. You thank him for the meal. You chat a bit more with the folks sitting next to you, and you leave, happy for a bit of pre-pandemic social interaction. There’s something particularly nice about that reality, about knowing that a Nigerian institution like few others can play at least a small role in helping New York feel like New York again.