We chewed. “It tastes like mushroom,” someone ventured, and the table concurred: the meat was woody in texture, not slippery like escargot, and slightly nutty in flavor. It was edible. We were eating it. There was nothing to fear.
Buka opened last spring in the southern reaches of Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. The restaurant’s name comes from Hausa, one of Nigeria’s hundreds of languages, and suggests a canteen serving unfussy, traditional food.
Make that a shabby-chic canteen. The owners, Lookman Mashood and Nat Goldberg, have transformed a former law office on a dingy stretch of Fulton Street into an airy, inviting space. Victorian details — a floral couch, an oil painting in a gilded frame, a chandelier — are juxtaposed with gritty exposed brick.
Upfront is a long wooden bar where you can get a Chapman ($5), a fizzy Nigerian cocktail that includes Sprite, orange Fanta, Angostura bitters, and dashes of lemon, lime, grapefruit and (surely a Brooklyn innovation?) verbena. There is palm wine ($4) too, sweet with a yeasty finish, and Malta Guinness ($5), a nonalcoholic malt beverage brewed in Nigeria that smells like pumpernickel still baking in the oven. Fresh liquefied ginger ($4) — “juice” hardly does it justice — is a sock in the jaw.
In the back, the feel is of a vast drawing room, with tables flung far apart. A floor-to-ceiling bookshelf is stocked with glossy art tomes and diasporan newspapers with ads for delicacies like burnt goat’s head. You may be eating fufu — the thick paste made of yam or cassava that is a West African staple — but you’re doing so on formal high-backed chairs with cushioned armrests...
The crowd is heavy on expats. Mr. Mashood, who doubles as the chef, grew up in Lagos, where he learned to cook from his aunts. On his Twitter feed, he mixes announcements of which bands will be playing at Buka that weekend with news updates from Nigeria.
The staff is friendly and protective. (“You don’t want that,” a server warned me one evening about amala, a dried-yam-flour fufu.) They will instruct you to tear off a piece of fufu ($3 each), then dab it in your stew and sauce. This may prove a tricky operation because, unlike bread, fufu is too elastic to actually soak up anything. It must be wielded like a spoon.
Pounded-yam fufu looks comfortingly like mashed potatoes but has little taste on its own, which works well with the hearty goat stew ($9). More challenging is the devastatingly sour eba, a kind of fufu made from fermented ground cassava.
A common ingredient in the accompanying sauces ($3 each) is Norwegian stockfish, whitefish dried by sun and wind rather than cured with salt. (How an ingredient from northern Europe made its way to Nigeria no one at the restaurant was able to explain.) In conjunction with ground ogbono pods, it produces a taste oddly — and not entirely pleasantly — like Parmesan.
But, really, you needn’t be adventurous to dine here. I know of no culture in which crispy fried things are not treasured, and akara ($5), black-eyed-pea fritters, are a delight. Likewise paper-thin slices of grilled beef dusted with suya ($5), a slow-burn spice mix proprietary to Nigeria whose dominant notes are groundnuts and cayenne. Best of all is moi moi ($5), a steamed honey bean cake, fiery and crumbly.
Among the entrees, steak ($19) and whole grilled tilapia ($15) are safe havens in an uncertain sea.
Still, it is worth braving the more uncompromising items on the menu. In the pepper soup ($9 with goat, $10 with fish), habañeros are strewn with abandon, defiantly, almost dementedly. It is immediately clear why this soup is on Lonely Planet’s Top 10 list of the world’s hottest foods.
According to the Nigerian gypsy-cab driver who dropped me off at the restaurant, it makes you invincible. I could manage just a few spoonfuls, but I haven’t had a sniffle since.
946 Fulton Street (Cambridge Place), Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, (347) 763-0619, bukanewyork.com
BEST DISHES Moi moi, akara, suya, goat pepper soup, fresh ginger juice.
PRICE RANGE $3 to $19.
CREDIT CARDS All major cards accepted.
HOURS Sunday to Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m; Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS Dining room and restrooms are accessible.
RESERVATIONS Not necessary but recommended for Fridays and Saturdays.