Christmas is here! Along with a cold snap and a dump of snow to complete the whole festive package.
This chilly weather has my family tucked snugly indoors, drooling about the meal we had last week at Flavours Restaurant. We were so grateful to be invited by the owner, Bola Esan, to stop in for an early dinner on a snowy December evening. Once we got settled with our wiggly two-year-old in a cozy booth, Bola and her husband began raining a dizzying amount of hospitality on our heads.
Knowing their toddler audience, we were first served a plate of puff puff ($7/12 pieces). This sweet and golden-fried item is made with regular wheat flour – “Nigerian Timbits” as our hosts joked. These were obviously a hit with the little guy, but he was especially pleased with the classic sword skewers we used to devour them while they still too piping hot to pick up with our hands.
Next came the fish-based pepper soup ($10) with a generous slab of basa. The other pepper soup options were chicken and goat, each of which comes with its own unique broth base. We were given the even-less-spicy-than-mild version of this soup (for reference, a normal serving would be reddish in colour!), which still had a warm, peppery kick that hit the back of our throats and didn’t stay behind to scorch our mouths. The big surprise for me with this dish was the refreshing handful of mint floating in the broth. I’ve had mint in savoury applications before, but never in a soup! The little guy blinked hard at his first sip when the pepper hit, but he was grinning and asking for more right away – officially toddler approved!
Next came a freshly baked meat pie ($3), which we were very happy to learn we could buy at the counter to take and bake at home (12 for $10). The filling was aromatic, mild, and so satisfying with a perfect blanket of pastry tucked around it for safekeeping.
My favourite course of the evening was this heaping plate of aromatic, fragrant jollof rice and spicy chicken legs ($19) and a side of sweet fried plantain ($3). Note the tiny sword sneaking into frame trying to get into the mix before Mom was done taking photos! This was prepared to be as mild as possible, but the rice still had a bit of a kick as it’s cooked directly in a reduction of hot peppers, tomatoes and onions. My son described it as “too ‘picy”, his dad wished it was a little hotter, but it was just right for my taste! Are we the three bears destined to eat Goldilocks for dinner? With my first bite, I knew my future cravings for this dish would be the tipping point to get me driving halfway across town for another meal at Flavours. Another highlight was the ripe plantain, sliced and fried so the outside is slightly crisp and the inside is soft and naturally sweet. Incredible!
I could tell that Bola was very excited for us to try her signature African meal of okele, soup, and meat ($19-24). To break down the options, I’ll explain okele. This is a Yoruba word for foods known more generally as “swallow”, or the starchy pastes that help deliver soup to your mouth when eating by hand. The one we tried was iyan, made with pounded yam flour (as opposed to cassava, wheat, semolina, and other starches). I would describe it as lightly sweet, velvety smooth mashed potatoes, but with that heavy, starchy weight that made me think of other natural thickeners like tapioca. Bola said this was a great one to get new diners started in their introduction to Nigerian food and I completely agree.
After you choose your okele, you also need a soup! We were treated to a split portion of two classics: egusi (melon soup), and efo riro (spinach stew). The umami factor was off the charts here and these were so unlike anything else I’ve ever eaten! Matt preferred the melon and I preferred the spinach, but both were delicious when scooped onto a hearty pinch of iyan. I also absolutely loved the goat meat. Hearty chunks of meat, some on the bone and some off, were tossed in a bright, vegetable-based pepper sauce that just worked so well with the soups and sweet yam.
I am very glad we were honest with our hosts about the mild level of spice we (read: me) could tolerate. Matt might have to order on his own next time so he can get the higher heat level his heart truly desires. Even with the spice dialed down to what I’m sure the average Nigerian family would call a zero, the flavours remained bold and satisfying. I always worry about being disrespectful to a cook when requesting specific spice levels because I don’t want to ever imply that I don’t trust their judgment, but our conversation with Bola and her team was a great reminder that restauranteurs don’t want you to leave regretting a single bite! Well, except perhaps for that last bite that puts you over the edge of fullness and into “why did I do it??” territory.
I can’t comment directly on the level of service since we were being hosted as invited guests, but those huge portions of high quality, intensely flavoured foods are what I’ll be thinking about over the holidays while eating my family’s own traditional dishes. This meal really made me reflect on how grateful I am that Calgary has continued to attract a steady stream of talented people like Bola and her family. How lucky are we to live in a place where we can meet new people and share new experiences without ever leaving the comfort of the city where my husband, my son and I were all born?
If you’re still not comfortable venturing out to eat in the midst of the pandemic, I can still highly recommend Flavours Restaurant (4129 – 4th St NW) for at least a takeout meal. The stewed meats, freshly simmered rice and hot soups are all well-suited to travel! Based on the amount of leftovers we carted home from this feast, I recommend starting with one of their combo meals and adding on from there if necessary! If you’re a newbie like me, don’t be shy about asking for advice when you order. And definitely do not miss that jollof rice!