At Obosá in Roslindale, chef-owner Gloria Omoregbee prepares dishes from her native Nigeria: soups flush with peppers; stews enriched with palm fruit and served with creamy pounded yam; a brick-red jollof rice that warms the back of the throat.
And then there is the coconut pasta, her own invention. It’s tossed in a creamy sauce, served with chicken, shrimp, or salmon. “We were trying to do something that’s going to appeal to everybody but at least have Nigerian spices,” she says. “I want a twist where you can come in and recognize the food, but when you taste it, you say, ‘Oh, this is different.’”
Those spices are the heart of her cooking, the spark that brings it to life. Ehuru, a nutmeg-like aromatic. Orima, reminiscent of black pepper. Habanero chiles, fruity and fiery. "Some of them I don't even know their names in English," she says with a laugh.
Trained as a teacher in Nigeria, Omoregbee came to Boston in 1998 and worked in a group home with people who have intellectual disabilities. All the while, she cooked as a side gig. "I have a deep love for cooking — and eating, of course," she says. "When I watch people eat my food, that's all the satisfaction that I need."
For years, she dreamed of opening her own restaurant, putting money away each week toward that goal. A friend told her that a space in Roslindale was available. When she saw it, she says, she fell in love. Omoregbee transformed what was once a pizza shop, installing graceful glass pendants, cozy tables behind a white-columned archway, and artwork from Nigeria. Obosá opened Feb. 15.
Customers barely had time to enjoy the gracious space before coronavirus closed it. But Obosá‘s food was still available through takeout and delivery. It recently resumed dine-in service. ”Thank God we’ve been able to remain open,” Omoregbee says. “It’s very disappointing financially. We had just opened. We were not very known. I’ve had to ask some of my employees to stay home. That was the toughest part of it. But I’m sure it will pick up again.”
Indeed, the mood in the restaurant is upbeat, optimistic. The bare-bones staff, now behind Plexiglas barriers at the front counter, still exudes warmth and welcome. And Omoregbee can still get those all-important spices, ordering them through a New York wholesaler.
The chef-owner is from Obiaruku, in Delta State, closer to the river than the coast. The cooking there is a little less oriented toward seafood than in, say, Lagos, although fish — sometimes fresh, sometimes smoked — still plays a role. Perhaps the region's most famous dish is banga stew, made from palm fruit and fish or meat. Omoregbee prepares it with catfish.
I might have missed it, if I hadn't paused in the middle of ordering something else altogether (egusi stew, made with melon seeds) and asked the person on the phone what her favorite was. "I love the banga stew," she said. "It tastes like home."
Home is delicious. The palm fruit turns the stew a dark red, and it tastes dark red, too; the deep flavor is a little like paprika, a little like cinnamon, and then not at all. I unwrap the softball of white pounded yam and dip some in the stew, the perfect creamy, neutral foil for the spices.
Fish pepper soup features tender, pink-tinged fish in a thin, clear broth that is smoky and spicy. The orima sings on the tongue, filling the mouth with mild heat. Obosá also offers versions of this soup with goat, chicken, or vegetables.
Jollof rice, the grains unctuous, arrives at its sunset hue via tomatoes and peppers. The order includes two chicken legs, fried crisp, and two sides. A bright green spinach stir-fry and fried sweet plantains are good choices, but it’s also hard to resist Obosá‘s moi moi, a steamed bean pudding with the texture of a dense tamal.
Choosing among okro stew and white rice with tomato stew, nkwobi (cow's foot simmered in pepper sauce) and ugba (a salad of oil bean seeds with stock fish), it is easy to overlook the "small chops" section of the menu — finger foods like meat pies, fish rolls, and samosas. Don't skip them, because they're excellent. My favorite might be the unassuming puff-puff, three deep-fried dough balls, piping hot and lightly greasy, with a springy texture and gentle sweetness. They would be great with coffee, but there's no chance any will be left over the next morning.
When I pick up my order, a first-time visitor strolls in, searching for dinner. I watch him scan the menu. "I'll have the coconut pasta," he says, then pauses for a minute. "And the jollof rice with beef." Omoregbee's strategy seems to be working.
All of the food at the restaurant is made from scratch. You can taste it: the layers of spicing, the care that's taken. Obosá, Omoregbee tells me, means "the hand of God."
"I wanted a name that has a meaning, that means so much to me," she says.
146 Belgrade Ave., Roslindale, 617-327-3700, www.obosafoods.com. Appetizers $1.50-$6.50, entrees $10.99-$18. Open Tue-Sun 11 a.m.-9 p.m.