Akwaaba Reviews St Kilda Reviews 2022
1 29 Fitzroy Street
See the map
|Opening hours||Lunch Thurs-Sun; dinner Wed-Sun|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Call||03 7067 7600|
Have you had foufou recently? Banku or kenkey? If you’re Ghanaian, you know those soft, teary dough balls. But if you’re unfamiliar with West African food, you can visit Akwaaba for a tasty and casual schooling.
St Kilda’s restaurant opened its doors last November, bringing color and life to a gaping strip of empty shops. Akwaaba is brimming with upbeat energy, especially on Thursdays and Saturdays when there is live African jazz. Even on the calmer days, diners are drawn to murals depicting village scenes and a ceiling hung with calabashes (gourd-shaped percussion instruments). The food is vibrant too.
Owner Ahmed Inusah moved from Ghana to Australia 20 years ago and has cooked in Melbourne for two decades in pubs, a gourmet deli and other modern Australian-style venues. Over time, her dreams of African cuisine percolated. But why here? “I was in St Kilda and wanted a kebab,” Inusah told me. “I walked past this shop. Something said to me, ‘It’s here.'” And so it is.
The suya platter ($76), stacked in gorgeous bounty on a wooden board, is a Melbourne version of a Ghanaian street grill. The pieces of beef and chicken are marinated in suya spices, a classic but always modified mixture including chili, smoked and crushed peanuts, dawadawa (a fermented paste made from carob), aromatic selim pepper, anise and thyme. The meat is further slathered with suya while the charcoal sizzles and the suya is also sprinkled on top creating a triple layered play of spicy flavors. The plantain is marinated in red chili and ginger, then fried until golden and sticky, it’s delicious, a crispy heat giving way to a starchy sweetness.
The suya board comes with plain pilaf, but it would be a shame to run out of jollof rice ($13). There are as many ways to prepare this tomato rice as there are cooks in West Africa. Akwaaba’s version is based on a slow-cooked tomato and onion stew that lends a tangy sweetness to the long-grain rice simmered in it.
Another platter ($35) sees spiced fried mullet cutlets alongside crunchy dried whitebait and kenkey. This traditional bread is made from corn – dried corn is soaked in water for five days to ferment – then mixed, formed into a dough cake and steamed.
Banku ($8) is similar, though it’s more finely ground and stirred in a pan to form a softer round of dough.
Fufu ($8) is a ubiquitous West African savory starch cake that can be made from yams, cassava, cocoyam or – as is the case here – plantain. This is not fermented, but devoutly stirred until it comes together into a soft ball.
You’ll have cutlery, but a huge wooden finger bowl sends a message. When it comes to subtly sour and spongy breads, there’s nothing more satisfying than tearing off chunks and slipping them into the trio of salsas that accompany so many dishes; they can also be ordered separately ($3 each). There’s a red habanero and red chili paste, a brighter green pepper and green chili sauce, and a darker concoction with smoked shrimp. I would take any of them home in a bottle.
Peanuts are a key crop in Ghana and they are found in many dishes. Akwaaba’s meal-sized Peanut Soup ($31) is a rich, moist curry, reminiscent of ginger and garlic, accented with tomato. The lamb falls off the bone into the thick spicy broth. This is another great friend of fufu.
Like everywhere, Akwaaba is recruiting. For now, a friendly but skeletal staff means ordering and payment is done via a QR code. Pictures on your phone help, but if you don’t know your waakye from your jollof, you might want more guidance.
One thing that isn’t obvious but will be welcomed by many is that almost everything on the menu is gluten-free. Ghanaian food can be starchy, but the carbohydrate load comes more from rice, yams and maize than from wheat.
Ahmed Inusah’s menu is halal and he doesn’t serve alcohol, but you can bring your own (the corkage is minimal). The soft drinks are good, though, and mostly made with fake spirits: I like the sobolo, a zero cane liqueur, and a hibiscus cooler ($12).
Akwaaba is humble, but there is also a lot of ambition. “It’s magic to do that,” Inusah said. “African cuisine is so broad. I’m still learning. I’m going to talk to my mom and ask her about ingredients that I only know in dialect.”
Of course, the brilliance of the owner is easier to appreciate if the dining experience takes shape; fortunately the food in Akwaaba is of high quality.
Melbourne is reasonably well served for East African cuisine – there are plenty of Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali restaurants, mainly in the north and west of the city – but West Africa has less of a presence, particularly in the nearby suburbs.
If Ahmed Inusah fills his own cup while engaging the city in fufu fun, then it’s a win all around.
Vibe: Vibrant West African cuisine in a casual setting
Essential dish: Suya plate with grilled meats, pilaf and trio of salsas ($76 for 2-3 people)
Drinks : Non-alcoholic wines and good non-alcoholic cocktails; BYO allowed
Cost: $80 for two, excluding drinks
This review was originally published in Have a nice week end magazine