Last year around this time, shortly after the post-vaccine portion of the pandemic began, so many restaurants, culinary events and fledgling supper clubs were purportedly dinner party-adjacent that it seemed like a trend. Instead, everything became a speakeasy concept, and the whole living room thing turned out to be PR synchronicity. Whether they were unspeakably expensive, logistically convoluted or just totally divorced from that stated intention, few of those purportedly homey destinations landed as anything other than (often pleasant!) places to exchange money for goods and services.
I went to my first real dinner party in quite a while shortly before those places started opening. I brought wine, the host was charming, I barely knew anyone, the food was good and the evening made it seem like social life could be easy again. Dept of Culture is a closer approximation of that night than any of the places that had promised they would be.
Longtime hospitality professional Ayo Balogun opened Dept of Culture a short distance from his cafe, The Council, in January. Balogun also began hosting a pop-up dinner series influenced by convivial dining experiences in Nigeria a number of years ago. His latest venture is similarly fashioned, and with 16 spots mostly around one communal table (a few are at the kitchen-facing counter), Balogun serving as each seating’s host (there are two nightly) and a BYOB policy (spiced, tomato-based obe ata appears here and there, should that inform your selection) it delivers on the promise that erstwhile almost-trend foretold.
Dept of Culture’s four-course tasting menu ($75) takes notes from north-central Nigeria. A staffer switches records between rounds. The menu in the small, comfortable space lined with family photos, changes every couple of weeks but the pepper soup is frequently served and it’s one of the best things I’ve eaten so far this year. Red snapper (or sometimes another seafood variation) is suspended in a vibrant broth with stained glass translucence. Sprigs of cilantro settle under the surface like aquatic flora. Balogun, who details and contextualizes each dish, mentions its heat intensity, but the caution only seems necessary for the most spice averse—it's more bright and fresh and it is fiery.
The generously-plated wara ati obe might be next, a cumulus cloud of mild raw milk curds in that bolder red sauce. Its juxtaposed flavors are nicely balanced, the wara’s yielding texture lays the groundwork for future cravings and it’s an item seldom seen on NYC restaurant menus. The penultimate course could be the gbegiri, another texturally dynamic preparation with more fish bits, corn and yams combined into a satisfying stew of a conclusion. And dinner typically finishes with dodo, a deep golden plantain under a dollop of vanilla ice cream, after a couple of hours that seem to fly by like at any fun fête.
Dept of Culture is this genre of intimate dining’s most successful address and the whole operation makes it look effortless. It is, of course, a little harder to win a reservation than it is to get invited to a pal’s place. But you still get to bring your own wine, and odds are the food’s a lot better, too.
The Vibe: Welcoming, intimate dinner party style and charm.
The Food: A frequently updated, seasonal four-course tasting with menu items influenced by north-central Nigeria.
The Drinks: BYOB.
Time Out Tip: Dept of Culture plans to host visiting chefs in the near future. Details will be posted to its website and social media accounts.
Dept of Culture is located at 327 Nostrand Avenue. It has seatings at 6pm and 8:30pm Wednesday-Sunday.