London is culinary proof that you can eat your way around the world. Forget fine dinning, the capital is awash with honestly-priced and lovingly-prepared food that it is worrying to think of the amount that passes us by.
Across the road from my gym is Palm Beach. Written in green type on the windows are the words 'Delicious Nigerian Food', and underneath the restaurant name is the description: 'Nkwobi spot'. I had been starring at it for months, sweaty from running, thinking I must pluck the courage and go in.
'Nigerian cuisine' is a hard category to pinpoint with different areas in the country serving different delicacies and culinary traditions. Palm Beach says specifically that it is a nkwobi spot, so we are heading specifically to eat nkwobi and hoping to try a few more things along the way.
Nkwobi, for the uninitiated (like me and my Norwegian dinning partner), is a bowl of spiced cow's foot - a cut-up hoof seasoned with seeds, ground crayfish and habanero pepper, it is not an experience I have any reference for.
For starters, the restaurant itself is quiet and friendly. This Wednesday night, diners are coming in and out to pick up take-away; we sit at a table and enjoy a few bottles of Gulder, in gold letters on the label it says 'the Ultimate Beer', though it tastes much like any other lager. On a TV in the background BBC News 24 is on. The place has a relaxed vibe and there is no pressure, only calm joviality.
One thing that really helps, when trying a new cuisine, is a guide. The owners came to us immediately, talking through each dish and telling my scared-looking Scandinavian friend she could make things a bit less spicy (this did not help her poor North European taste buds).
We started out with nkwobi and a plate of suya (diced and spiced barbecued goat or beef). Cow's foot, as expected, was not something I was quite ready for. The sauce, however, was mild, nice and gave most of the dish its flavour - the hoof itself had the texture of hardened jelly, it was devoid of flavour but there was a hint of meat. Though the bowl it was served in was shallow, I withdrew half way, not through lack of interest but because I was starting to get full and had a bigger dish of pounded yam and egusi (the clue is in the name; think of mashed potatoes with a stronger consistency and melon soup garnished with spinach and fish) was on the way.
Across the table, the suya meat was dry, chewy and pleasant. As I munched my way through them (my Scandi friend needed an early spice break), I could imagine dropping in after the gym, feeling very good about myself, after surviving my foodie excursion to Nigeria.
For the main, across the table, my friend opted for a classic jollof rice with chicken and plantain - the rice tomato-y and lovely, everything else done well. For me, egusi soup - more of a stew really, made with pureed melon seeds mixed up with spinach. I chose tilapia fish to complement my egusi and a plate of pounded yam - a doughy dish that you make small balls out of and swish through the soup. The fish came off the bone easily, tucked into a piece of pounded yam with a good serving of the egusi it tasted fantastic, the dough neutralising and enveloping the meaty fish.
When the egusi was served, I was told that it was traditionally eaten with the hand. When I said that was what I intended to do, I was ordered, firmly, to go wash them. Good food and hygiene all taken care in a relaxed atmosphere - a hidden quiet spot to discover when you want to eschew the pomp and ready for your next adventure.
NOTE: James Tennent ate at Palm Beach anonymously and paid for his own meal.