Monday, October 28, 2019

Where to Eat: A “DIY Nigerian Dinner Party Vibes” Airbnb Experience @ Eko Kitchen, SOMA, San Francisco

The Experience: A two-hour initiation into the art of cooking Nigerian cuisine, including favorites like chin chin, stews and puff puff

The Location: SOMA

The Vibes: Cozy, earthy, educational, inviting

Good for: Alone, dates, small groups

When-To-Go: Select Thursdays; check the website for exact availabilities

The $$ Factor: $43 per person

The Names behind the scenes: Head chef / Owner Simileoluwa "Simi" Adebajo

The 4-1-1: In addition to offering this Airbnb Experience, Eko Kitchen is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. I
t’s closed during the week but offers meal preps and corporate catering for companies in the city. The restaurant also occasionally hosts pop-up dinners throughout the Bay Area. 

Transportation: The restaurant is located just a few blocks south from both the Civic Center/UN Plaza BART and the Van Ness MUNI stations

I’ll Be Back…: To learn how to make jollof rice and chin chin next!

Back in 2017, the digital travel platform Airbnb expanded its offerings, introducing a new program called Airbnb Experiences. For any given city, you can now search hundreds of activities that typically last a few hours, ranging from neighborhood walking tours to culinary classes and even photo sessions — something I booked during my latest trip to London.

Earlier this month, I signed up for an Airbnb Experience right here in the Bay: a “DIY Nigerian Dinner Party Vibes” class at Eko Kitchen.

For a little bit of context, Eko Kitchen is a casual, one-roomed restaurant serving up Nigerian cuisine, all to the backdrop of Afrobeats in the heart of SOMA. This modest dining spot is bathed in earthy yellows, tans and muted grays. It officially opened earlier this year and started hosting Airbnb Experiences in September.

Head chef / owner Simileoluwa "Simi" Adebajo (pictured below left with me) is originally from Lagos and quit her job as a financial analyst to operate Eko Kitchen full-time. She leads her sessions in a laid-back, welcoming manner that feels like you’ve known her for years. 

Each "class" can have up to 10 guests. Participants get to make two to three different Nigerian dishes, learning about the ingredients and various cooking methods along the way. At the end of the night, the group sits down to feast upon all of its hard work. The menu rotates weekly, so even if you’ve previously attended, you can potentially have a different experience, the next time you go.

Here’s a look at how my night went! 

There were only two others along with my friend and I, making for a nice intimate setting.

We kicked off our session by watching everyone wash their hands — so appreciated and welcomed — before reuniting in the main dining area to divvy up responsibilities to prepare our lovely dinner of fried plantains, chicken stew with rice and puff puff

I got stuck with cutting up onions, garlic and ginger, but still made sure to sneak next to my friend, who was responsible for the plantains, as Adebajo was explaining how to properly peel and cut them, prepping them to be fried. 

Look at how gorgeous our plantains turned out! Perfectly golden on the outside, sweet and mushy inside.

After everyone chopped, sliced and diced the veggies, marinated the meat and mixed the puff puff batter, it was time to head into the kitchen. Here, we gained hands-on experience frying the puff puff, a traditional dessert pastry made of yeast, cinnamon, flour and sugar. If I had to compare it to anything, it’s kind of similar to a beignet or donut hole. There’s a very nuanced way of scooping the batter with your hands and dropping it directly in the deep fryer, so as to have flawlessly smooth, fried spheres. 

Unfortunately, none of us except for Adebajo could master the technique, so we instead ended up with puff puffs that she affectionately coined “alien babies,” pictured below. Nonetheless, they were tasty no matter how they looked, so the moral of the story: don’t judge a book by its cover! 

The last item on our list was the chicken stew, a recipe that’s been in Adebajo’s family for generations. I learned some excellent cooking tips while helping with this dish: roast rather than boil veggies to retain their flavor, blend veggies in a blender for a puréed texture, and rub chicken down with oil as you season it to help it more easily absorb the spices. 

After letting the chicken marinate in our spice blend — including a spice cube called Maggi that Adebajo brought directly from Nigeria — we baked and then added it to a blended mixture of onions, ginger, garlic and peppers. We also made long grain par boiled rice, which Adebajo shared is frequently eaten in Nigeria. 

Now that’s what you call a stew!

After almost two hours of cooking (and nibbling on plantains and puff puffs to sustain us throughout the evening), it was time to sit down and enjoy the fruits of our labor. It was all quite delicious and I can't wait to try to reinvent this in my own home. 

So the next time you’re in the mood to have a hands-on culinary adventure and learn more about Nigerian cuisine, I recommend checking out Eko Kitchen’s “DIY Nigerian Dinner Party Vibes” Airbnb Experience. You’ll find new friends, discover new cooking secrets and of course, eat wonderful food.

See you there soon!

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Monday, October 21, 2019

Where to Travel: London

I've been slacking!

I haven’t posted in a while, and that’s because I was traveling.

One stop in particular was London.

Last time I was there, it was 10+ years ago as a broke college student. I gained less-than-fond memories: insanely cold weather, dark skies and a terrible exchange rate on the dollar that made buying anything expensive AF.

I remember the food scene being underwhelming, too.

Aside from a simple sandwich costing like ten pounds — which was $20 back then — I didn’t have the best dining experiences. Sadly, highlights include a very bland traditional English cuisine, cheap but greasy fried chicken at a casual street vendor and an overpriced, tasteless dinner at a tourist trap of a fancy restaurant.

So I was quite curious to see how the city — and the culinary scene — had (or hadn’t?) changed in more than a decade when I crossed the pond last month. While there, many people reassured me that the food options had significantly expanded and diversified in the past decade.

And they were right.

It was literally like night and day. I found myself eating at so. many. amazing. places. Thanks to the recommendations of co-workers, friends who lived there and a bit of my own laudable research on-the-fly, there literally wasn’t a meal I had that I didn’t like.

So now, based on my most recent expedition there, I compiled a list of eight restaurants that truly left a lasting impression on me. You’ll notice many of these have international influences — from dim sum to sushi and curry — a reflection of the diverse cultures that call London home.

By no means is this list exhaustive or meant to assume that this is all the city has to offer. Instead, it’s simply what I found to be tasty and think you may enjoy, too. Of course, if you have any other favorite spots, please drop them in the comments section below!

8) Curry @ Brick Lane

A family friend recommended trying the curry in Brick Lane — a street in East London’s Tower Hamlets borough. Lined with curry houses, bars and storefronts, Brick Lane offers a look into London’s Bangladeshi community amongst a gritty backdrop of graffiti-laden walls, compact brick buildings and historic points of interest. When I asked this friend if there was any particular curry house to check out, she shared “Just pick one!” That’s how we ended up at Nazrul. Nazrul’s approach to attract clientele is similar to how it’s done at many other touristy destinations; restaurant workers stand outside, wooing diners in by striking up conversations and promising unbelievable deals. Seeing the decent crowd inside and hooked by a £15 dinner combo of an appetizer, entrée and rice (pictured below), we decided to give it a try. While the food was average — certainly not the best Indian food I’ve had — I give Nazrul points for such an expansive menu, a complimentary BYOB policy and decent prices. Before or after eating here, make time to wander up and down the street, viewing the graffiti artwork (pictured below) and stopping by the weekly market, if you’re there on any given Sunday.

Wilson’s Words of Wisdom: Noteworthy to visit for historic and cultural immersion!

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7) Dishoom

With five locations in London and two more in Manchester and Edinburgh, Dishoom is on a mission to revive Bombay’s Irani café culture and spread it as wide and far as possible. I’d say the upscale chain has been quite successful, as Dishoom frequently came up as somewhere to go in my conversations and it was bursting to the brim with patrons the couple times I went. My first attempt at coming here was a weekday evening at the Shoreditch location, where a line — excuse me, queue — wrapped around a building. There was an estimated wait time of an hour…just to get into the bar…to then wait yet another hour to be seated for dinner(!). Fortunately, my second try for lunch at the Covenant Garden location only had a 15 – 20 minute wait at the cozy downstairs bar before being seated. What I appreciated the most is that Dishoom has a completely separate dairy-free menu, with items that don’t sacrifice flavor simply because dairy has been removed. Even with a sweet vinegar marinade as a substitute for yogurt, my grilled chicken tikka was so tender and juicy. Desserts aren’t to be missed, either. I couldn’t make up my mind and ended up getting both of the dessert options – the Kala Khatta Gola Ice and the Basmati Kheer, pictured below. I’ve never had anything in my entire life like the former, which is like a frozen slushy with blueberries and kokum fruit syrup, but with a spicy, savory kick, thanks to chili, salt and pepper on top. The Basmati Kheer is a rice pudding with vanilla-infused coconut milk, cardamom, cashews and a blueberry compote. Even without once drop of dairy,  it's quite creamy and rich. 

Wilson’s Words of Wisdom: Come here for a culinary adventure!

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6) Sushi and Yakitori Grilled Meats @ Sticks ‘n’ Sushi Victoria

Hailing from the land of amazing sushi — a.k.a., Los Angeles — I have a pretty high bar when it comes to what’s considered good sushi. Yet Sticks ‘n’ Sushi far exceeded my expectations, thanks to super fresh fish, creative fun rolls and so many other diverse options. With Copenhagen origins and 20 locations throughout the UK and Denmark, Sticks ‘n’ Sushi features both sushi and yakitori grill favorites, all in an ambiance where Danish and Japanese design elements merge. Sticks ‘n’ Sushi caters well to large groups, with pre-set menus that can mix and match different sushi, skewered grilled meats, and other sides and appetizers. It’s a great way to sample a little bit of everything. Sitting upstairs in the Victoria location, my colleagues and I opted for the Extravaganza, a massive spread of sushi, seared meats, grilled meats, edamame and apps. Sticks ‘n’ Sushi also gets bonus points for being extremely flexible and accommodating with food preferences; they switched out beef and dairy items for other options, with no additional charges or other issues whatsoever.

Wilson’s Words of Wisdom: Stop by if you're in the mood to sample a lot of different options!

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5) A Shareable Thai Dinner @ Busaba Chelsea

With 13 locations scattered throughout the city, I ended up at the Busaba in Chelsea, late one Sunday evening with a handful of other customers within the serenely dark atmosphere. The Thai restaurant boasts a modern-meets-traditional aesthetic, where hanging lantern lights, neon red contemporary artwork and a row of waving fortune cats all gracefully coexist. Tradition seems to play an integral part of Busaba's identity, as according to its website, sook jai (meaning ‘to enjoy’ and ‘happy heart’), is Busaba’s “living ethos.” A Thai Buddhist monk even held a blessing ceremony for the opening of its second location in 2003 in order to “bring good luck, success and prosperity.” The restaurant has a wide variety of shareable Thai favorites, from rice bowls to curries, grilled meats and lots of different apps. I feasted on some of the most succulent duck breast, covered in a sweet honey tamarind sauce (pictured below). The Matchstick chicken winglets, also pictured below, are malt-marinated and all sorts of crispy goodness. We rounded out dinner with an order of Por-pia Jay, vegetable spring rolls with a sesame dipping sauce.

Wilson’s Words of Wisdom: Lots of shareable options for a family-style meal!

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Still in Chelsea and a stone’s throw away from Busaba is e&o, a fancy restaurant specializing in pan-Asian cuisine served in an intimate, upscale ambiance. Propping up at the bar, I initially fell in love with e&o’s clean, minimalistic vibes, as tropical plants, golden fixtures and a smooth, white marble bar gave me swanky Miami art deco feels. Apparently, e&o just re-opened this summer after undergoing a “considerable renovation” — one that I’d say was quite successful based on how it looks now. According to its website, e&o takes its culinary influences from nine countries: Bali, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Thailand. This diversity is reflected in the menu, with options ranging from BBQs & roasts, to tempura, curries and specialties like Pad Thai. I decided to go full in with the dim sum, selecting a variety from fried to steam, and different ones each filled with prawns, king crab or chicken (pictured below). Cocktails here seem to have a novel take on traditional recipes. For example, my Thai Basil Daiquiri, where hints of basil were blended with rum, was just the right balance of sweet and savory.

Wilson’s Words of Wisdom: Nice for a romantic, intimate night out.

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3) The Dining Court @ Arcade Food Theatre, Covent Garden

One culinary trend appears to be quite popular: food courts and food markets. In one big space, multiple — from a handful to 50+ — vendors will set up shop in individual stands, offering food and beverage for purchase. Communal tables with benches and chairs are in the space, too, and there may even be music or live entertainment. While my fiance went to Mercato Metropolitano food market in the Elephant & Castle neighborhood one night and the Pergola Paddington market also came highly recommended to me, I actually ended up meeting co-workers at the Arcade Food Theatre. Right off of the Tottenham Court Road tube station in the Covent Garden neighborhood, this casual dining destination features seven different dining concepts and three separate bars, all situated on the ground floor of the Centre Point building. Order and pick up food options ranging from Italian to Japanese, Japanese-Peruvian, Southern Portuguese, Mexican street food, Turkish-Cypriot cuisine and beef prepared in many different ways. Sadly, we only made it to one kitchen — Pastorcito’s — but I definitely wasn’t disappointed! I sampled some of the best tacos and guacamole I’ve ever had (yes, I said ever!!). Below, check out two tacos in particular: the al pastor with pork shoulder that’s been marinated for 24 hours and topped with caramelized pineapple, and the Baja fish, filled with Corona-battered sea bass.

Wilson’s Words of Wisdom: Large groups who are looking for a lot of variety, come here!

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One of my favorite pastimes is to simply bask in the beauty of Central London’s Hyde Park. It’s free, it’s stunningly breathtaking and you can do so much here, from kicking a ball around to reading a book or walking some of the various paths. The park also has a great little café to snag a beverage at, the Serpentine Bar & Kitchen. Situated right on one of the banks of the massive Serpentine lake, the café offers picturesque views and a variety of different beverages to please all ages. Hot chocolate overflowing with whipped cream, marshmallows and chocolate powder, and adult options, such as the summery Pimm’s Cup cocktail, both pictured above, are just two of many available selections. There are also wines and hard liquors, and if you’re on-the-go, bottled and canned drinks. Casual food like pizza, burgers and salads can be purchased here, too, if you're looking for a small snack or two. We ordered fries — excuse me again, I mean chips — which were OK.

Wilson’s Words of Wisdom: Visit if the weather's nice!

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1) A proper English Breakfast @ The Rubens at the Palace

Of course if you go allll the way to London, you certainly can’t leave without a proper English Breakfast! The Rubens at the Palace, a historic hotel right across from the Buckingham Palace, brings out all the whistles and bells for breakfast. Located in The English Grill, an opulent dining room adorned with chandeliers, oversized chairs and an extravagant floral carpet, there are two breakfast options: a continental buffet or a full English Breakfast. I say skip straight past the continental buffet and opt for the full breakfast, as you can still access buffet items, and the full breakfast comes with so much more. It’s a nice spread of hearty sausage, bacon, black pudding, a small hash brown square, Portobello mushroom, grilled tomatoes, baked beans and hen eggs, cooked to your preference (side note: the eggs are prepared with heavy cream). It’s a great way to get a sample of English food, and everything truly is bursting with so much flavor. While I didn’t get a chance to stop by this trip, Rubens also offers an afternoon tea service, live jazz in its Leopard Bar, and Indian/African-inspired three-course dinners in The Curry Room downstairs. Something to look forward to during the next trip!

Wilson’s Words of Wisdom: Perfect place for a proper English breakfast!

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Let's meet in London sometime soon!