REVIEW: Island Grill brings the complex flavors of Nigeria to Duluth

The Island Grill’s jollof rice comes with plantains and a choice of protein — in this case, fried mackerel. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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The Island Grill’s jollof rice comes with plantains and a choice of protein — in this case, fried mackerel. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Sometimes, I dine out because I want the comforts of home — fried chicken, collard greens, cornbread. At other times, I’m on a quest for the unfamiliar — tastes, textures and techniques that might evoke distant places and cultures.

Dipping into the excellent okra soup and jollof rice at the Island Grill, a newish Nigerian restaurant in Duluth, I was reminded of Southern gumbos and Savannah red rice — up to a point.

We can’t talk about the cuisine of the American South without acknowledging the indelible contribution of slave cooks, many of whom were stolen from their homes in West Africa. Nor can we describe West African food from a strictly Western point of view. Egusi soup; gbegiri and ewedu; edikang ikong: If you are as unschooled as I am, you’ll need to do a little homework.

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Among the Nigerian classics you can try at the Island Grill are ayamase stew (bottom) with plantains and rice; and efo riro, a thick green soup of amaranth greens, spicy pepper sauce and locust beans (right). Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Among the Nigerian classics you can try at the Island Grill are ayamase stew (bottom) with plantains and rice; and efo riro, a thick green soup of amaranth greens, spicy pepper sauce and locust beans (right). Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Combined ShapeCaption
Among the Nigerian classics you can try at the Island Grill are ayamase stew (bottom) with plantains and rice; and efo riro, a thick green soup of amaranth greens, spicy pepper sauce and locust beans (right). Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

But, don’t be intimidated. It’s OK to ask the staff, or Google while you peruse the menu.

After a couple of visits to the Island Grill, I’m intrigued by the complexities of a cuisine that derives its richness from fatty cuts of beef and goat (and sometimes palm oil), its smoky allure from dried fish, its fire from a variety of peppers, and its funky tang from fermented ingredients. And, I haven’t even mentioned the starches — pounded yam, wheat-meal fufu, garri (smashed cassava root) and amala (reconstituted yam flour). Most of these grains are shaped into pudgy wet pillows. Pinch a piece off with your fingers, roll it into a ball, and use it to temper the sting of a spicy stew — or, to soak up more gravy.

I recommend you start with the most common Nigerian street snack: suya. Strips of beef, traditionally seasoned with spices and peanut powder, are grilled and served with raw onion and more dry spice, for dipping. Stab a slice with a toothpick, drag it gently through the spice mixture, and eat it with a bite of the onion. It’s irresistible. (To go with it, I suggest Trophy, an easy-drinking Nigerian lager that comes in a jumbo bottle.)

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The Island Grill serves Nigerian classics, such as this okra stew with pounded yam. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

The Island Grill serves Nigerian classics, such as this okra stew with pounded yam. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Combined ShapeCaption
The Island Grill serves Nigerian classics, such as this okra stew with pounded yam. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Another essential starter is the moi moi (sometimes called moin moin), a lovely steamed pudding made of rehydrated dried beans that takes its pinkish color from red peppers and dried crawfish. The version here is an elegant little mold, studded with boiled egg and dainty little fish. Only a highly competent cook could execute such a masterful moi moi.

The jollof also was delicious — sweet, savory, smoky. We requested it with fried mackerel, which came smothered in tomato sauce. The fish was fine, if a bit bony and strong tasting. As much as we loved the deeply flavorful okra soup (not the least bit slimy), our chosen protein of braised goat was rather chewy. One would expect more from a $29 soup. While we asked for fufu to go with the soup, I’m pretty certain we got pounded yam, a fluffy, plain-tasting mash formed into a ball, reminiscent of mashed potatoes, but firmer.

On my second visit, I tried the classic soup efo riro, and loved the haunting, smoky funk of locust beans, hot green pepper and stewed amaranth greens. Because the menu states that the dish includes a starch ball, I was puzzled to see I’d been charged $4 for a side of pounded yam. I also requested chicken with this dish, but it came with mixed meat — tripe, goat, etc. Ayamase was perhaps the most ambitious plate I tried — a bright, fiery melange of spinach, tomato, peppers and various meats (chicken mostly). Plain, par-boiled rice accompanied the dish; I also liked it with scoops of pounded yam.

Mix-ups aside, the Island Grill was a mostly satisfactory experience. The meal arrived quickly on one visit, but took a good bit longer on the second. The restaurant has a bar, and is equipped for Friday night dance parties. Our server told us we should come back for the fun.

In a part of town known for an abundance of Asian restaurants, it’s good to see Africa representing, too.

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A good way to start your meal at the Island Grill is with a plate of suya, a grilled beef snack that is typical of street food in Nigeria. It goes well with beer. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

A good way to start your meal at the Island Grill is with a plate of suya, a  grilled beef snack that is typical of street food in Nigeria. It goes well with beer. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Combined ShapeCaption
A good way to start your meal at the Island Grill is with a plate of suya, a grilled beef snack that is typical of street food in Nigeria. It goes well with beer. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

THE ISLAND GRILL

Food: classic Nigerian, with a few surprises, such as noodles and shawarma

Service: nice enough, but more attention could be paid to customer requests

Best dishes: suya, moi moi, jollof rice, efo riro, okra soup

Vegetarian selections: ask before you risk it; this is a meat-heavy cuisine, and management never responded to our requests for more information

Alcohol: full bar

Price range: $$$

Credit cards: all major cards accepted

Hours: 12-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays. 12-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 12-9 p.m. Sundays

Children: yes

Parking: free in lot

MARTA station: no

Reservations: yes

Wheelchair access: yes

Noise level: low, though we never witnessed the Friday night dance party

Takeout: yes

Address, phone: 3665 Club Drive, Duluth. 404-600-4155

Website: theislandgrillduluth.com/menu

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