Walking into Festac Grill takes what can only be described as a large leap of faith. It is tucked into a small building a little more than a block away from busy Atlantic Avenue, with windows tinted almost to the point of opacity. On my first visit, the day was hot and the sun so bright that it took my eyes a full 30 seconds to realize I had walked into an empty room. This was slightly reassuring since I probably appeared to be a person without sight feeling his way around the dark room. Since the windows are tinted so dark, hardly any of that sunlight makes its way into the interior.
Lagos is home to a large Guinness brewery, and the beer has a special place in the country, so as my eyes were still adjusting, I ordered a bottle and waited for words to appear on the menu in front of me.
Many West African restaurants are steam tables, allowing you to look over the day's options and select what looks best. Festac is not this way, and the menu is not at all informative for the uninitiated. My experience with the cuisine is limited, so I pestered the lady for information about different dishes. Unfortunately the answers were not so extensive, so I fell back to some tried and true favorites and vowed to come back with more research and dive further into the menu.
Despite generically reading "African & American Restaurant" on the awning outside, Festac Grill is truly specialized and thoroughly Nigerian. The television is tuned to Nigerian Television Authority, the walls are adorned with Festac '77 posters, a festival that took place near Lagos celebrating world black arts and culture. The town the festival took place in is still called Festac Town, is a federal housing estate, and most interestingly is the origin of a majority of the fraudulent emails you receive out of Nigeria.
I could not resist ordering a suya ($5, above), a type of beef jerky that you find on the streets at night. You can find it in beef, fish, or chicken varieties, but the only one on offer here is beef, which starts on the dry side with subtle flavors but quickly grows on you as you continue to gnaw.
I was in the mood for something spicy and had good experiences with goat pepper soup ($8, below) at other restaurants, so I decided on it for my meal. This is some serious stuff, almost as if a goat was hacked up and thrown in a pot, heavy on the offal.
The soup is supposed to be this way, despite versions in Clinton Hill being almost exclusively accessible chunks of meat. Dive right in! As I was struggling with all the entrails on my first visit but thoroughly enjoying the spicy stew, the restaurant started to fill up with other diners, who all ordered "soups" served with a generous ball of fufu.
For my second visit, I invited a friend originally from Nigeria and was excited to go after these dishes on the menu that are called soups, but are not liquid for the most part and are eaten with the fufu, your hands, and nothing else. My previous attempts to eat with this sticky ball have not been my proudest moments, so learning good techniques was also a benefit of this day.
He ordered the egusi soup ($12, below), a name that actually refers to the seeds used to thicken the sauce. You can have a variety of meats or seafood with this dish, but this version seemed to be a combination of beef and goat, again heavy on offal.
I chose the edikaikon ($15, below), which for whatever reason comes with the highest price tag in the soups section. This dish is made with fluted pumpkin leaf, and is mixed with a heavy dose of goat offal, like usual.
I was lucky enough to receive my Fufu 101 class when I started fumbling around trying to pick up enough food for a bite. The first good hint is that you always roll a small enough ball not more than one bite, never bite off a piece from a larger amount. It helps to wet your hands before starting, as Nigerian pounded yam (there are several other options to choose from) is especially sticky and this helps prevent it from staying on your fingers. After rolling the ball, make a small indent that will act as the scoop. Use your thumb to push a good amount of the soup towards your fufu and press firmly. The mistake I was always making was trying to pick up the food with it, like you might with a piece of naan.
Feeling confident, I proceeded to each as much as my stomach allowed. The ball weighs about as much as a brick though, and feels like one when have eaten most of it, so definitely keep your ball size down as much as possible.
The small restaurant has a tiny bar tucked into one corner and is an enjoyable place to sit and have a few drinks after or instead of a meal. That sun is going to melt your eyeballs anyway once you return to the real world, so you might as well linger until it goes down.
263 Hendrix Street, Brooklyn NY