LeRhea O’Neal, born and raised in California — who also happens to be newly married to a Nigerian — professionally pulled off a wad of gluey iyan (pounded white yam), rolled it into a ball, flattened it with her fingers and used it as a scoop for efo, a spinach and goat stew. I dropped my knife and fork and did the same thing.
This single change in the delivery system expanded the flavor, texture and tactile pleasure of eating the saucy, gently spicy dishes at Lagosia, a handsome new West African restaurant in Berkeley.
I had many questions about Nigerian cooking after an initial lunch of tasty groundnut (peanut) stew ($7.95) with a creamy, tomatoey, thyme-scented sauce and juicy hunks of chicken with skin and bone, served with white rice. Having never been to sub-Saharan Africa, I took an experienced crew with me to dinner on the next visit.
We snacked on chin chin, little squares of crunchy, barely sweet pastry scented with nutmeg, as we sipped versatile Golden Kaan Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa ($31). Scotch eggs ($4), hard-boiled eggs encased in ground sausage, deep fried, cut into wedges and served with a sweet mayonnaise and mustard sauce disappeared in a flash.
Akara ($5.95), mashed red bean fritters unbashfully scented with thyme (in the same family as tea-bush used in Nigeria) were California-ized with fresh tomato and onion salsa and sour cream. Everyone loved suya ($6.95) West African chicken kebabs in a spicy, ground peanut crust.
Efo ($12.95), the star entree, reminded me of an Indian spinach curry but with tender, mild, long-cooked goat. Iyan, the pounded white yam, comes on the side in a small bowl. Though stickyand bland, it magically adds depth and texture to saucy dishes like fresh fish stew ($13.95) a filet of white fish smothered in a smoky, dried shrimp-infused tomato sauce; or house stew ($9.95), another tomato-based sauce redolent of peppers.
Jollof rice ($12.95), a classic Nigerian dish, met with approval. A plate of aromatic, buttery red rice was topped with spice-rubbed barbecued chicken with luscious fire-blackened skin.
Instead of iyan, you can scoop up your stew with balls of eba, sharply fermented cassava starch. Iyan is better here. Dark brown deep fried plantain slices called dodo ($3) go with everything.
For dessert, everyone has puff-puff ($5.95) big round beignets rolled in sugar. They’re the size of oranges here and the centers can be sticky. At half the size, they’d be divine. I like them without the untraditional melted chocolate filling which detracts from the pure indulgence of eating yeasty fried dough.
In a new building, Lagosia’s airy dining room stretches along University Avenue with comfy booths positioned in expansive front windows. The restaurant’s modern look is built with smart wooden chairs and tables, a wine bar (with flat screen tuned to soccer), tile work and African art.
Equally compelling is the warmth and friendliness of the staff and the vibrant costumes of the African crowd — at least for me.
As we were walking out, I asked Femi Onaceru, the newlywed from Lagos, Nigeria, what he thought about the food. He answered in one sentence, "Come to our house and I will cook for you."
If you can’t snag a Nigerian dinner invitation, Lagosia is a good introduction.
Location: 1725 University Ave., Berkeley
Contact: (510) 540-8833; www.lagosia.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday
Price range: Starters $4 to $6; entrees and stews $9.50 to $13.95
Recommended dishes: Scotch eggs, chicken suya, jollof rice, efo, puff-puff
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
Reservations: Only for five or more
Patricia Unterman is author of the "San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide" and a newsletter, "Unterman on Food." Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.