Patina African Kitchen, we've written, stands out amongst the Bronx's ever growing cadre of West African restaurants. Since opening a year and half ago, it's become one of the borough's very best in genre, an exclusive club that counts beloved favorites including Bate, Ebe Yie Ye, and Papaye among its members. The banga soup alone was unique enough to warrant special mention, but as I've discovered, there's a lot more going on here.
While West African immigrants to the Bronx hail from all over the region, the majority hail from Ghana. Accordingly, most of the Bronx's West African restaurants serve Ghanaian food.
Patina, the restaurant's eponymous chef and owner, was born and raised in Nigeria, land of pepper soup, egusi, and suya kebabs. Here in the Bronx she cooks the food of her people, the Yoruba, and it's a great boon for us. The best of her menu is distinctly different from the Igbo repertoire of Brooklyn's lovely Buka, the most well known Nigerian restaurant in the city.
In my eyes, the dish that best captures Patina's commitment to cooking is her Efo Riro ($12; all dishes served with your choice of meat). A Yoruba classic hailing from Western Nigeria, efo riro is typically made with leaves from pumpkin or water plants. As is often the case in America, spinach suffices.
The leaves, stewed to a gentle, pliant tenderness, are cooked with a base of palm oil and a vibrant, smooth-talking paste of onion, red bell pepper, and scotch bonnet. Brilliantly red and piquant, the paste invigorates the greens with a spark of citrusy heat and the sweet depth of onions.
Escalating the dish is a tandem of generously applied dried and smoked fish. As the former disappears into the greens, leaving behind mere traces of funky umami, the latter thrusts itself stage center, providing much needed contrast in both flavor and texture. Your tongue will sizzle as you chomp into a chunk of smoked fish, the mellow scent of burning wood intoxicating you. There is a vividness of flavor rare in a cuisine that relies so heavily on earthy greens, musky spices, and fermented fish.
No dish at Patina can quite match the efo riro or that certifiably delicious banga soup, but there's more good stuff on the menu.
You will find slimy okra soup, light soup ("like Pepper soup," Ayomi, a cook, told us), peanut soup, and other standard bearers of the West African menu alongside the Yoruba specialties. There is Asaro ($10), a heterogeneous yam porridge that is like the rice porridge of the Yoruba. It won't blow you away with layers of flavor—it's prepared simply with minimal seasonings—-but the interplay of textures is pleasing. Sticky whole pieces of yam resist your fork, clinging to the plate, while the broken down tuber has a smooth, puréed texture. Throw some smoked fish and black shito (chili relish made with dried fish) in there, and we're taking about dish I'd crave for breakfasts on end.
Much more compelling is the Egusi Soup ($12), a stewy dish native to southern Nigeria. The crucial ingredient, for which the dish is named, is a type of melon seed that is ground and used as a thickener.
Sadly, there doesn't seem to be any evidence of the traditional dawadawa, a "cake" of fermented locust bean seeds that is said to taste like cheese. What you find instead is a bowl of greens, spinach once again, smoked turkey, chewy goat, and lumps of egusi that have a light, cloudy texture like the softest, moistest scrambled eggs.
We ate our bowl with supremely sticky, amala, a Yoruba foodstuff made of dried yam flour that has the woodsy taste of dried mushrooms. You can choose from a number of starches to fill out your stews, like fufu and eba, all made to order. Skip the jollof rice, which is dry and tastes of burned herbs.
Some dishes sell out early, and others go missing as cooks come and go. The attieke, finely ground fermented cassava with tilapia, is not currently available, as the cook from Côte d'Ivoire who makes it is on vacation. Patina used to have a Senegalese cook as well, but she has since left. The Yoruba dishes, though, always seem to be ready for the taking.