Nigerian cuisine is the fastest-growing segment of the city’s African restaurant industry. Four places have recently opened—one in Queens, two in Brooklyn, and one where you’d least expect it, on Staten Island—while the number of Senegalese, Guinean, Ghanaian, and Ivory Coast establishments has remained relatively constant. Strictly speaking, New Combination is not completely new, but extensively expanded and improved from its previous digs around the corner on Clarkson Street. The current location looks like it might have been a Chili’s or an Applebee’s: two stories of seemingly new construction with a big modern interior and a menu that justifies the restaurant’s name by offering American breakfasts, including grits, bagels, and cornflakes, along with fish-and-chips and Brit tonics such as Vitamalt, Lucozade, and Milo.
The majority of the bill of fare, of course, is Nigerian, listing lots of soups like ogbolo, ewedu, and edikaikon that, were they regularly available, would make the menu the most comprehensive of its type in the city. On our visits they were sadly absent, but the food was great anyway. We sampled an exemplary egusi ($7), a potage made by suspending the coarsely ground interior of melon seeds in palm oil, then lacing them with bits of spinach and sun-dried stockfish, creating a soup that’s a dead ringer for runny scrambled eggs. Other soups sampled on various visits included an okra number so mucilaginous that even after taking a bite and chewing for a while, the tendrils of goo still extend from your mouth back to the bowl. Hey, it’s good! The mixed-meat soup, standard at other Nigerian restaurants like Mirage (2143 Cortelyou Road, Brooklyn, 718-941-4452), is a frequent special at New Combo, featuring the same winning constellation of cow feet, tripe, and beef chunks that, for non-Africans, might be too much chewiness at a single sitting.
In Nigeria these soups are invariably paired with a wide variety of mashes made mainly from tubers or their corresponding flours and meals. As Nigerian food has been adapted in America, where most ingredients have to be imported, the range of mashes deployed has narrowed. Simultaneously, the size of mash servings has dwindled by at least 75 percent, as the meat or fish portions increase and eventually predominate. Pounded yam made from yam flour (elubo) is the only mash served consistently, but, lucky for us, there are plenty of other starchy substances on the menu. Biggest hit on a recent visit was moi moi ($2.50), dehulled cow peas pureed with eggs and tomatoes, formed into patties with added bits of fish, then lightly fried into delicious puffy brown clouds. Similarly starchy is asaro ($9), yams imported from Ghana (“Nothing like American yam,” the proprietor bragged), boiled and slightly mashed with palm oil and salt, making a very rich meal. From the Muslim Hausa of northern Nigeria comes suya ($5), beef kebabs dipped in crushed peanuts and served off the stick with sliced tomatoes and raw onions—real party food.
But the most amazing thing on the menu is snails ($5 each). These are not the wimpy escargots eaten by the Senegalese in emulation of the French, but giant land snails (Achatina achatina) three inches in diameter. When pulled from their spiral shells, they reveal giant black wings that make them look like small bats. Served in a fluorescent red sauce and unbelievably rubbery, they’re high in protein and virtually fat free according to our hostess, who observed, “They’re found under bushes in the jungle, the best thing to eat if you go on a diet.”
Maybe the diet part is that you only take one bite.