125 Enmore Rd Newtown, NSW 2042
|Opening hours||Dinner Wed-Sun 5pm-late|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||0416 482 820|
It's the age-old immigrant story, played out in the suburbs of Australia. When people move to a new country, they seek out the food they grew up with, to keep their culture alive.
Not so tough if you're from Italy or China, say, but a bit harder, says Adetokunboh (Ade) Adeniyi, if you're Nigerian.
Adeniyi launched Little Lagos as a pop-up at places such as Earl's Juke Joint in Newtown, before finding it a home of its own opposite the Enmore Theatre midway through 2020.
It's a modest, narrow space that almost glows with art and warm, vegetal colours, banquette seating down one curtained wall and cocktail bar down the other.
With more than 250 different tribes in Nigeria, and as many microclimates, the menu picks a diplomatic path across national favourites, regional differences and spice levels.
Rich red palm oil serves as the foundation for much of it and goat is the favoured meat, with beans, yams and rice integral dishes in their own right, coloured with capsicums, spinach and chillies.
What's lovely about this food is that it tastes familiar even to a non-African novice. The much-loved Nigerian meat pie ($10) is kissing-cousin to a Cornish pastie, with its soft, flaky, crimped-edge pastry and hearty filling of finely minced beef, potatoes and carrots.
But if there's one dish that every Nigerian swears by, it's jollof rice. Head chef Kemi Fajemisin does a ridgy didge jollof ($20), the basmati cooked in a stew of capsicum, tomatoes, onion and habanero chillies, yet surviving with each grain distinct and separate.
According to Adeniyi, jollof is a party dish, one that brings people together. It also brings a meal together, partnering happily with goat stew ($28), a thick, aromatic jumble of bits and bones bobbing in a red-oil slurry fruity with capsicum and sweet with tomatoes, onion and warm with spices. Best to pick up the bones and gnaw at them to get at more of the sweet young meat.
Most of the food comes at once – none of that dragged-out, one-at-a-time here – which adds to the party atmosphere. Add a bowl of efo riro ($30), thick, stewy, spinach studded with the intrigue of calves' foot, beef tripe, stockfish and dried, smoked cod flavoured with bouillon, pepper and ground crayfish, a common Nigerian seasoning.
Pounded yam ($10) is a key side dish, as smooth and smoochy as Guillaume Brahimi's Paris mash. Pinch off a wad with your fingers, swish it through the stew and pop the whole thing into your mouth. I love how it gets down to your ribs, pauses, and says, "actually no, I'm staying here, if that's all right with you".
The kitchen's non-confrontational position on chilli means most of the food is warmly spiced rather than searingly hot. Even so, beer is a good idea. Nigerian Star is sold out but Marrickville's Grifter pilsner ($9) does the job.
The wine list is limited, but the cocktail scene is fun, with a Big Chapman (gin, Chambord, Campari, tonic) made almost medicinal with Ghana's Alomo bitters.
"You'll have to come back for the puff puffs," says Adeniyi. Puff puffs ($5) being yeasty, deep-fried sugar-dusted beignets like Italy's bomboloni, he has a point.
In Sydney, it's easy to pay $30 for a main course cooked by very good chefs who have little connection with the food other than the fact that it's their job.
It's so very different when it comes from people who are immersed in the food, drink, music and language of their own culture, and who want to share it with others.
This is the fun part of not being able to fly overseas for food adventures – that we can still do it without leaving home, because our streets are lined with great eating experiences from the cultures of the world. All we have to do is show up and be humble, hungry, and open to the experience.
Vegetarian: A handful of meat-free dishes run from fried plantains to moin moin (black-eyed peas) and asaro (yams with capsicum, chilli and spinach).
Drinks: Cocktails (including a play on the traditional Chapman), five beers and a basic, good-value, nine-bottle list of entry-level wines, also available by the glass ($10).