When Ayo Balogun opened the Civil Service Cafe in Bed-Stuy in 2013, it was a fairly simple cafe that became a neighborhood staple – until a few years ago when a car tragically crashed crushed into the window, causing it to close. Months later, Balogun reopened the cafe under a new name, The Council, with a sleeker look. Here he began to think more about how to infuse his Nigerian roots, such as incorporating obe sauce made from red peppers and tomatoes into his egg sandwiches – flavors he had experienced at pop-up dinners held in its Bed-Stuy since closed. restaurant, the Trade Union Cafe, which opened in 2015.
During the pandemic, at a time when people yearned for more events to attend safely, Balogun brought back the dinner pop-ups he became known for at Trade Union, which took place on the sidewalk Council coffee relaunched. On Saturday, January 15, Balogun opens a permanent restaurant inspired by these dinners with Dept of Culture (pronounced Department of Culture), located at 327 Nostrand Avenue, near Quincy Street.
“To be honest, during the pandemic, I was really looking for something fun to do that showcased my culture,” Balogun says of the pop-ups. But the dinner parties inspired Balogun to focus more on the food he grew up with in Kwara State and he found himself looking for a permanent space where he could cater more cohesively with a menu focused on Nigeria which could bring together neighbors near and far.
With Dept of Culture, Balogun wants to showcase Nigerian cuisine, with an eye to its home state in north-central Nigeria. He hopes that, at the very least, the restaurant can highlight regional differences across the continent. “African food is so often lumped together,” he says, exasperated. “There are [so many] languages spoken in Nigeria alone…think of all the different foods that come with it.
A lot is still up in the air about how the culture department will operate on a day-to-day basis. The tasting menu format may change, but Balogun, who is currently chef and owner, plans to offer a three-course tasting menu for $60 with a la carte options.
Balogun envisions the experience at the Dept of Culture as being different from that of his cafes. Overall, the concise menu will attempt to mimic the feeling of cafes in Nigeria, but has positioned it as something closer to a fine dining restaurant.
Throughout January, diners will find fresh fish soup with pepper simmering on the stove, a dish he says he has fond memories of from his youth which was known to be very spicy in his household. His version uses swordfish instead of the usual tilapia or catfish.
Suya – the popular Nigerian street food of grilled skewers, often presented with red meat – is served here with a choice of mushrooms, octopus or chicken. However the menu evolves, Balogun says he wants to keep traditional dishes like “an aunt might make them”, but he also wants options suitable for all types of diets. Therefore, he decided to prepare his version of jollof rice – a complementary option to the set menu – without chicken or goat broth, to keep the dish vegan.
The last of the three dishes is pounded yam with efo riro (cooked greens), wara (a curd recipe, peculiar to his home state of Kwara), with a choice of protein such as striped bass or shank of lamb.
For dessert, there’s a complimentary little “surprise” of roasted plantains sautéed in maple syrup, served with ice cream.
For each of Balogun’s hospitality businesses, he considers food and drink as the beginning. The name of the Ministry of Culture refers to Balogun’s upbringing in a family that worked for various branches of the Kwara government. He hopes the new restaurant will be a place where people can come to eat, share art and talk politics. To this end, art will also spin throughout the space and a record player will spin old Nigerian albums.
With just 16 seats at the restaurant – split between a communal table and a few counter seats – the intention is for even “the shyest” customers, Balogun tells Eater, to have the chance to meet someone new. .
For starters, Balogun will be offering two dinners per night – likely at 6pm and 8pm – which must be pre-booked on Tock (which will go live soon) or via Instagram DMs. The restaurant will be open from Tuesday to Saturday, with breakfast – open without reservation – to follow.