Many years ago in Lagos, the former capital of Nigeria, there was a hotel called Boolat, owned by a woman who created the name by combining the first letters of the names of her ten children--Bimpe, Beatrice, Bolade, Oluyemisi, Olumide, Omolara, Olashile, Layi, Adeniji, and Taiwo.
The sixth eldest, Beatrice Hardnick, moved to the States in 1991 in an attempt to gain independence from her well-to-do family. "I wanted to make it on my own," she says. After working briefly as a nursing home assistant, she realized there was something else she wanted to do. "I decided to open my restaurant because I love to cook and I love to share my experience, plus I would be my own boss." As a tribute to her mother, Hardnick took the name of the old family hotel, altering it slightly to "Bolat," which also tied her name to the names of her three children, Ola, Tumi, and Tokunboh. It opened on the 4800 block of North Sheridan.
Last fall, after eight years there, Hardnick decided it was time for a move. She began scouting sites in more popular areas. "I want to grow and have so many branches," she says. "We need to introduce African food to so many people, not only African. So I decided if they can't come to me, I need to go to them." After a frustrating search, she came across a location on Clark that had last belonged to a sushi place. It had everything she was looking for, including an open kitchen that would allow delicious smells to waft into the dining area.
Everything served at Bolat is made from scratch by the owner and her sister, Olashile Aina, who has been with her from the start. "I learned to cook from my mother," explains Hardnick. "She loved to cook. But she didn't like to make a lot of food that you're going to store in the refrigerator and eat for three or four days. She liked to cook everything fresh all the time."
Many Chicagoans are probably not familiar with the strange-sounding foods on Bolat's menu: fufu, egusi, jollaf rice, efo. Actually, the staples of African cuisine are not that mysterious. Many Nigerian dishes consist of meats like beef, chicken, lamb, or fish mixed into various stews with familiar vegetables like tomatoes, spinach, and onions and seasoned with thyme, curry, garlic, and ginger. Located on Africa's western coast, Nigeria was a popular stopover for European explorers, who introduced peppers, peanuts, and corn into the traditional cuisine. The Nigerians, who brought their foods along on the slave ships, had a great influence on much of Central America and the southern U.S.
Yams are a staple of African cooking and come prepared many ways, from boiled to fried to steamed. These starchy tubers are slightly different from American yams, so Hardnick uses imported African yams. Her favorite dish is a yam porridge with fried plantains.
Fufu is a paste made of yams that have been steamed and ground with a giant mortar and pestle to the consistency of Play-Doh. Much as Americans will use a dinner roll to scoop up leftover sauce on a plate, Nigerians will use a piece of fufu to sop up saucy dishes such as egusi, a beef stew made with tomatoes, spinach, and ground melon seed, or efo, spinach in tomato sauce flavored with pepper and onion. Another frequently used ingredient is palm oil, which serves for frying plantain fritters or adding flavor to dishes like jollaf rice (mixed with tomatoes and peppers). Palm nectar is also used to create a nonalcoholic wine that's both sweet and bitter.
Since the move, Hardnick has made several major additions to her menu, including 15 vegetarian entrees and sides and a delicious Caribbean jerk chicken from a recipe given to her by a friend. Another friend gave her recipes for some traditional dishes from Nigeria's neighbor Ghana. Customers can sample Ghanaian dishes like kenke (similar to fufu but made with cornmeal) with fish and pepper or fufu with peanut soup.
But it's not just the menu that's growing. Hardnick has renovated the second floor into a lounge, and once she obtains her liquor license she'll be able to offer her guests not only Nigerian stout and Star Beer but also live African music.
"I think I'm a pacesetter, because everybody who comes here says, 'Ooh, this is the best I've ever tasted,'" she says. "I don't want it to remain just like that, I want to grow. As long as the sky permits me, I want to keep flying."
Bolat is at 3346 N. Clark, 773-665-1100.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.