Around this time last year, shortly after the post-vaccine part of the pandemic began, so many restaurants, culinary events and fledgling supper clubs were allegedly next to a diner that seemed to be a trend. Instead, everything became one speakeasy concept, and the whole show turned out to be a PR synchronicity. Whether incredibly expensive, logistically convoluted, or simply totally divorced from that stated intent, few of these supposedly welcoming destinations have landed as anything other than (often enjoyable!) places to exchange money for goods and services. .
I went to my first real dinner in quite a while shortly before these places started opening. I brought wine, the host was lovely, I hardly knew anyone, the food was good, and the evening felt like social life could become easy again. culture department is a closer approximation to that night than any of the places that promised they would be.
Long-time hospitality professional Ayo Balogun opened the culture department a short distance from his cafe, The board, in January. Balogun has also started hosting a series of pop-up dinner parties influenced by convivial dining experiences in Nigeria. number of years from. His latest venture is similarly, and with 16 seats mostly around a communal table (a few are at the counter facing the kitchen), with Balogun serving as host of each seat (there are two every night ) and a BYOB policy (spicy, tomato-based obe ata appears here and there, if that sheds light on your selection), it delivers on the promise that once almost trend predicted.
The Ministry of Culture’s four-course tasting menu ($75) takes notes from north-central Nigeria. A staff member exchanges recordings between towers. The menu in the cozy little space lined with family photos changes every two weeks, but the pepper soup is served frequently and is one of the best things I’ve eaten so far this year. Red snapper (or sometimes another variation of seafood) is suspended in broth vibrant with the translucency of stained glass. Cilantro sprigs settle beneath the surface like aquatic flora. Balogun, who details and contextualizes each dish, mentions its intensity of heat, but caution only seems necessary for the most spice averse – it’s more crisp and fresh and it’s fiery.
The generously plated wara ati obe might be next, a cumulus cloud of sweet raw milk curds in this bolder red sauce. Its juxtaposed flavors are well-balanced, the wara’s supple texture sets the stage for future cravings, and it’s an item rarely seen on New York restaurant menus. The penultimate course could be gbegiri, another dynamically textured concoction with more chunks of fish, corn and yams combined into a satisfying concluding stew. And dinner usually ends with a dodo, a deep golden plantain under a dollop of vanilla ice cream, after a few hours that seem to pass like at any fun party.
Dept of Culture is the most successful address for this kind of intimate dinner and the whole operation makes it look effortless. It is, of course, a little more difficult to win a reservation than to be invited to a friend’s house. But you can always bring your own wine, and chances are the food will be much better too.
The atmosphere: Warm welcome, style and charm of intimate dinners.
The food: A seasonal four-course tasting frequently updated with menu items influenced by North-Central Nigeria.
The drinks: BYOB.
Timing tip: The Ministry of Culture plans to host guest conductors in the near future. Details will be posted on its website and social media accounts.
The Ministry of Culture is located at 327 Nostrand Avenue. It has seating at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.