BY ROBERT SIETSEMA
NEW YORK (NEW YORK EATER) -- The Nigerian presence in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill goes back to the ‘80s, when the neighborhoods were a hub for Navy Yard workers, art galleries, and boutiques. The stretch was eventually home to one of the city’s first Nigerian restaurants: Demu Cafe with a simple menu of items like fufu, black-eyed pea fritters, bagels, and coffee. Fast-forward to 2010, with the opening of Buka in Clinton Hill, named for a Hausa reference to a type of restaurant that serves homestyle, traditional foods. Buka was opened by Nat Goldberg, and Lookman Mashood who had immigrated from Lagos.
Even then, Buka enjoyed advantages that other restaurants did not. For one thing, it had a liquor license (many West African establishments eschew alcohol). It also boasted a bill of fare with dozens of dishes, while some nearby Ghanaian, Senegalese, and Guinean restaurants at the time might have offered three or four per day.
Buka had a family feel, and readily welcomed outsiders for lunch and dinner. The original Clinton Hill location staged art exhibitions, and hosted poetry readings, fashion shows, and community events , but was forced to close late last year due to lease issues. (In addition, a former employee sued the restaurant for wage violations; Eater has reached out for comment.) Now it has moved to a new space a few blocks east on Fulton Street, in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
When I went with a friend to check it out, the new space reminded me of the old place, only bigger. Art adorns the walls, while a combination bar and lunch counter dominates the front room. A small, bright dining area is found at the end of a hallway that runs along the kitchen. Down a few steps, there’s a glorious backyard that can accommodate dozens — still in a state of construction. Buka’s menu is as expansive as before and we started out with appetizers as we sat on a small porch overlooking the backyard.
Pof pof ($5) is the synodical name for doughnut-like fritters sold on the streets all over West Africa. Five to an order and served warm, they make a nice sweet start to a meal – but they’re also a great drinking snack or dessert. Dodo , which can also be served as a side dish, is ripe plantain deep-fried to develop caramelization. But the best starter we tried was suya ($5): The dish from northern Nigeria features a thick, tapered slice of lamb coated with spices, pierced by a wooden skewer, that’s served with purple onions and spicy peanut powder.
We had prepped our tongues with swallows of Nigerian Star beer ($7) before confronting the fish pepper soup ($15). This is not a dish that works at looking pretty. A whole tilapia floats in a grayish broth in what purports to be one of the spiciest dishes on the planet. The recipe uses lots of seeds – many of them fiery, but not in a cayenne sort of way. Grains of paradise and ehiri are two, but English is inadequate to describe the complex burning that lingers like a vivid memory. The soup can also be made with chicken or goat.
Speaking of goat, it is one of nine options ($17 to $26) that can be dropped into the spicy tomato-based stews that are the heart of the menu. Choices run to red snapper, chicken, igbin (land snails – very chewy) , and panla (dried stockfish) . We went with goat because we love goat. It turned out to be three giant bony hunks, from which morsels of meat could be stripped off — but the sauce is the most important part of the dish, and the meat almost a pleasant afterthought.
Two accompaniments to the stews are essential: one of three variations on fufu and a sauce. In addition to the pounded white yam fufu, we paid $5 extra for second fufu, made with fermented and ground cassava. These fufus get pinched off with the fingers of the right hand and dipped into the stew (pick up the goat bones separately and gnaw) . We picked two sauces, too: ogbono, a pod with properties something like okra, and egusi, ground melon seeds steamed with spinach and dried fish that look something like scrambled eggs.
With their multiple components, these main courses are delicious. There are also a dozen more one-plate meals, including goat and beef tripe in okra sauce ($20), grilled shrimp with suya spices ($20), and boiled white yam with scrambled eggs and chiles ($15) — a dish I’d thoroughly enjoyed at the previous incarnation of Buka .
A pan of water is provided to cleanse your hands, and there is an additional outdoor sink in the backyard. You may want to supplement your beer with a bottle of (non-alcoholic) palm wine, or a cocktail. Buka remains a great place to chill with friends: In short, Buka is a buka still well worth visiting.