Accra is rising. Literally. Roll around the wealthier parts of town and you’ll notice the spread of high-rise, high-density luxury accommodation, a category whose arrival is fairly recent. Hitherto the rich would buy a plot – if they didn’t already own one – then build a wall around it and erect something between a bungalow and a mansion, depending on the exact size of their wad. Real high-density was for the poor, and luxury apartments came in relatively small packages.
That worked pretty well while a very small number of people were rich, but now demand for Aspirational Living is thought to be rising, and there is little space left to meet it south of Nkrumah motorway’s psychological boundary. These days much of the private plot and McMansion action is happening just north of there, around East Legon and in the Trasacco Valley development. Though they offer plenty of space – for now – the trade-off is a horrible journey into the city.
Closer in, developers are banking on an explosion of young professionals to maximise returns on the few plots available. Their targets are affluent, but still childless. Single, even. They’re keen on like-minded company, lifestyle add-ons and a central location, and they are far less hung up on space.
What does any of this have to do with Santoku? It is on the ground floor of one of the most prominent examples. The Villagio Vista consists of three blocks designed to reference both Kente cloth and the Ghanaian flag, clad respectively in tonal variations of red, yellow and green. Propping up the red tower – the only one so far completed – is this little outpost of global wealth dining, complete with links to Nobu. A lifestyle add-on indeed.
It is all incredibly slick. The welcome, the decor, even the futuristic linen tunics they’ve put on the staff. Music and lighting are inconspicuously tasteful. Bartenders are of course called ‘mixologists’, and mixologise tangentially Asian twists on the classics.
Nevertheless, things get off to a rocky start. Cocktail twists turn out to be the surreal kind: an ‘Asian Collins’ is bourbon-based, and a ‘Pom[egranate]-Fashioned’ rum-based. Those aren’t twists, they’re completely different drinks. The range of Japanese beers, which at time of writing is still advertised on the website, is nowhere to be seen. I can have a Club, a Heineken, or one of their new selection of Belgian brews. Have you ever tried Leffe with Japanese food? Do you want to? No, nor me.
Our first dishes bring an uptick. A compulsive bowl of ‘crispy snapper skin’ tastes like scraps that have got all dolled up for the races. Yes, it is that delicious. A bar snack for the ages.
Next up are Chinese steamed buns reinvented as sliders. It’s cute, but the BBQ pork filling – a rich and sticky mess of shredded meat and skin studded with peanuts – deserves better than a tepid, claggy sandwich. The point of steamed buns is that they arrive sealed, inviting you to tear them apart and release a cloud of fragrant steam. They are fine things. Junkfood form factors have nothing to teach them.
A sashimi dish is brash and imbalanced, relegating raw tuna and salmon to mere textures. Fortunately the overpowering garnishes are pretty good – a deep slick of ginger, garlic and olive oil dressing, and a sprinkling of sesame seeds, green chilli slices and hibiscus flowers. (NB: This was on the ‘Zensai’ menu. We focused on Santoku’s house specials rather than its separate sushi and sashimi menu, so don’t draw any conclusions about the latter. I won’t until I’ve gone back to try it.)
The bounceback is swift, and begins with a pile of crispy squid pieces. Small enough to earn the ‘popcorn’ epithet at less socially ambitious establishments, they come with with a smooth chili and lime dip that offsets the crunch and heat. Pork belly skewers are the opposite: big, brawny cubes that fill the mouth with soft meat and melting fat.
The standout dish is black cod with den miso. It is a cover version, but that does nothing to dent its appeal. The miso creates an infinitely savoury patina over delicate white flesh – bulk it up with some steamed rice and it’s as satisfying a mouthful as you’ll find in Accra.
To close, there is a two-out-of-three chocolate fondant (crunchy outside, gooey innards, disappointingly soggy bottom) with subtle genmai ice cream, which has to be piled on to register over the cacao. A hint of green tea suggests it is genmaicha rather than genmai. Both fondant and ice are lovely, but neither has any appreciable relationship to the other.
We suck up an enormous bill and head out into hot evening air. Everything in the Villagio car park is a 4×4. Scattered lights twinkle in the tower, while the other two blocks gather themselves in the gloom. If you like this kind of thing, the news is good. There is more of it to come.
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Finding it: If cabbies don’t recognise the name of Villagio Vista, ask for African Regent hotel, which is directly opposite. In a private vehicle, you need to approach on the southbound carriageway of Liberation, peeling off onto North Airport Road just after the motorway. The alternative is to approach from Airport Residential area, joining North Airport from its western end.