Some restaurants take time to reveal what makes them special. Chef Ayo Balogun’s first bite is an uncompromising introduction: a Nigerian pepper and fish soup with an herbal flavor so distilled that you accept the sweat on your nose if it means you can go in for another spoonful. It’s easy to see the faces around you warm with life too, as there are just 15 diners, mostly clustered around one large table. Balogun’s a consummate host, introducing ingredients and courses like pleasingly funky iru (fermented locust bean paste) and a cluster of mushrooms rubbed with suya spice with an ode to his grandmothers or a reference to Game of Thrones. With family pictures on the walls, old records spinning lively beats, and BYO bottles in the fridge, Dept of Culture feels more like a home than one of Brooklyn’s hottest restaurants.
As with any dinner party, you put your trust in the host’s hands; the menu changes often and you likely won’t know what’s on it until you get there. Balogun opened the restaurant to highlight the specificity of north-central Nigerian cuisine; for all New York’s dining merits, its Nigerian offerings often fall underneath the overly broad African umbrella. He makes good on that duty with a recent inclusion of amala ati ewedu. The pounded yam with verdant jute leaf stew is the kind of deep-cut homestyle cooking he felt might have been too unfamiliar when the restaurant first opened. Almost a year in, Balogun is comfortable; when you visit, you will be too. — Bettina Makalintal
Dept of Culture
Brooklyn, New York
Photography by Alex Staniloff
Dept of culture
327 Nostrand Avenue
Brooklyn, New york
As a cocktail bar, Espiritu exudes easygoing pride in its Mexican roots. Agave-focused drinks tempt with ingredients like charred-pineapple and chiltepin-infused bacanora, while harder-to-find Mexican spirits like raicilla and sotol line the backbar. The location, shoehorned between a bakery and a taco shop in a sprawling Phoenix suburb, belies the jewel box of gilded mirrors and flickering candlelight inside. But it’s the menu, offering some of the most thrilling Sonoran cooking in a region that’s home to some of America’s finest, that makes it clear Espiritu isn’t just a bar with great food, but a great restaurant.
The ceviche mixto, a stack of shrimp, snapper, and octopus in an ochre pool of chiltepin-spiked broth, is a riot of texture, and the aguachile verde balances tartness and heat across a cilantro-dusted mosaic of shrimp, radish, and cucumber. Chef Roberto Centeno’s live-fire skills shine on his menu of smoky specials like hamachi collar sticky with sweet-and-sour ponzu sauce and piloncillo (unrefined cane sugar) or a mammoth bone-in lamb chop. It’s impossible not to get caught up in the casual spontaneity of Espiritu — for $20 the bar staff will light any drink on fire; on some nights they pull a grill out into the street for a homey cookout — but don’t let the frivolity deceive. A restaurant this bold demands serious attention. — Lauren Saria
Photography by jarod opperman
123 W. Main Street