Middle Eastern, Greek, Italian, Latin American, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, and West Coast cuisines—you can find them all on the way to the beach at English Bay. But a new establishment is serving up a menu that sets it apart from that area's culinary pack.
Arike Restaurant (prounced ah-ree-kay) opened last week at 1725 Davie Street near Denman Street, the former location of Italian restaurant Grotto. Sunken below street level, the 1,700-square-foot venue seats up to 44 patrons inside, with an additional 16 on patio (which will open during warmer weather). Chef Samuel Olayinka, in an interview at his new premises, told the Georgia Straight that they hope to add more greenery and possibly even a mural to the inviting, warm-toned dining room, accented with dark-wood décor and African motifs.
The Arike team of Olayinka and general manager Mike Cayman had met at culinary school at Art Institute of Vancouver. When developing the idea for the restaurant, Olayinka said that they first tried out a North African menu with classical French influences but said “it didn’t feel right”.
When he decided to back to his roots, he felt everything fell into place.
“It’s the food that always brought me memories of all the goodies and flavours that I’ve loved since day one,” he explains.
The Ottawa-born Olayinka, who has lived all across Canada, says he misses the cooking of his father, who hails from the Yoruba tribe in Lagos.
Spicy, bold in flavour, and rustic—that's how Olayinka describes Nigerian cuisine, and he divides it into two main time periods: pre-colonization cuisine, and new cuisine after colonization and international influences.
He says old-school cuisine consisted primarily of ingredients such as beans, vegetables, and fish, even snails, and peppers weren’t used, as they were brought in by the Portuguese.
For Arike’s menu, Olayinka says he opted for new-school cuisine, and uses Nigerian flavours and aromatics with local ingredients and his own twist.
But he wants people to understand that it’s not traditional Nigerian food (which he said is difficult to obtain ingredients for here) but his own take on it. He explained that he decided to take fusion route as an entrypoint, particularly for those who have never had a Nigerian meal before.
There are several North American staples, recast within African palates.
Take fries, for example, made with cassava and served with chicken-fat emulsion, confit garlic mayo, and sweet tomato dip. Or chicken wings, brined for five hours in vinegar and sugar, with ata din din (traditional pepper sauce made with onions, red palm oil, peppers, and habanero) and pickled onion.
Half of the menu is devoted to flatbreads ($15 to $17). That’s because the former establishment, the Italian restaurant Grotto, left behind a pizza oven. Instead of removing it, Olayinka decided to utilize it by adapting the recipe of Nigeria’s agege bread into a flatbread.
Flatbreads that are already hits include braised oxtail and cured pork belly, with a caramelized onion base, goat cheese, pickled habanero, and tomato; and the leg of lamb with suya and onion sauce, goat cheese, pickled aubergine, and sweet chili oil.
Suya, Olayinka explains, is a spice mix traditionally made by tribes in countries like Nigeria and Ghana, but for his version, he toned down the heat and leaned towards groundnut (or peanut) flavouring.
The other half of the menu features sharable plates ($6 to $16).
As jollof rice is a classic dish, Olayinka says it was a requisite item; Arike offers it as fried jollof rice with prawns.
One of their main sauces is a tomato stew that uses tomatoes, red palm oil, and ground crayfish in a seven-hour process before going into the jollof rice, their Norizo sausages (Norizo is their own playful portmanteau of Nigerian chorizo), and ata din din.
There’s also goat spoon, or braised goat with peanut and pickled onion, and ata din din, served on a copper-lined spoon.
Save room for dessert because one of Olayinka’s childhood favourites is up for savouring. His own milo ice cream, with ground peanuts, whipped pumpkin seed, and salted caramel, draws upon the “sweet, beautiful, chocolate, malty drink” that he, like Nigerian children, loved as a child.
Then there’s his take on pof pofs. Unlike traditional recipes, which he says produces a more savoury and dense doughnut-like snack, he used more of an “airy” dough that puffs up when deep-fried to create something lighter.
While the drinks menu, curated by bar manager Roman Karidi, offers beer, wine, and classic cocktails, Olayinka says they will introduce an African-influenced drink program, with possible ingredients such as hibiscus.
He adds that the menu will change with the seasons, and they will introduce a daily entrée menu. Although they have own greenhouse, Olayinka says they hope to develop their own garden and farm at some point.
However, their main focus at the moment is to welcome and introduce diners to their offerings.
Although he recognizes that many people may be unfamiliar with African cuisines, he says that many cuisines that are now popular in Vancouver had to overcome this hurdle. But he thinks it’s just a matter of time.
“It just has to have people or a community to bring structure to it so it can be…like the other restaurants,” he opines. “I think in this day and age people are wanting to try new things…. People are definitely a lot more curious than they used to be for sure. And they’re a lot more comfortable in trying new things and food.”