Thursday, December 25, 2014

Home cooking, direct from Senegal.

Thiebou dieun (left) combines jolof rice, one of Senegal´s most famous dishes, with steamed fish, chunks of stewed vegetables and a tangy cassava leaf sauce (center). Mafe (right), a peanut butter stew, is served with mutton or alone as a sauce.                                      John Costello / Inquirer
Thiebou dieun (left) combines jolof rice, one of Senegal's most famous dishes, with steamed fish, chunks of stewed vegetables and a tangy cassava leaf sauce (center). Mafe (right), a peanut butter stew, is served with mutton or alone as a sauce. John Costello / Inquirer
The gyrating dance moves of the Viviane & Le Jolof Band flashed across the TV screen. In one corner of Le Dakar, the pulsing music drew a group of young West African men closer to the screen. Some were dressed in silken grands boubous, the traditional embroidered robes of Senegal. Others sported the street gear of their adopted home, down to the baggy jeans and knit caps proclaiming their allegiance to the Eagles.

But the music's pull was the same for all: a mesmerizing souvenir of the continent they came from, a morsel of comfort in a faraway land called Philadelphia.

The same can be said for Le Dakar's menu, a concise collection of authentic Senegalese home cooking dished out with care from behind the kitchen's beaded curtain.

Sample a scoop of rice with cassava leaf sauce, and you're not in West Philly anymore. This is gateway cuisine, a peek at another culture as pure and transporting as any kitchen in the city can provide.

By most measures, this four-month-old eatery is inexpensive and modest. The hearty entrees top out at $7. A security grate covers the whitewashed front door, which looks forbidding even when left ajar and a sign in the window that says "Open." A dark basement restroom is still a work in progress.

But Le Dakar has a cheery spirit that helps it stand out from other grittier, utilitarian restaurants along Baltimore Avenue. This is in no small part thanks to owner Amy Sy, who left Senegal's capital (for which the restaurant is named) less than a year ago to join her husband, Abdul Ba, who also runs Le Dakar.

Resplendent in colorful robes and head scarves, Sy is a pleasant fixture in the tiny, tidy dining room, which is decorated with African artifacts and batik-print fabrics.

Sy's menu is filled with vivid, evocative flavors down to the homemade beverages — from the sparkling spiciness of the sweet ginger beer to the fruity smack of the deep-red sorrel juice.

The humble cuts of meat and fish that come with the entrees — generally fatty hunks of stewed mutton or slices of baby bluefish — may not impress an American palate accustomed to rack of lamb or sushi-grade tuna. But they are traditional and, to my mind, incidental elements that merely enhance the rice and sauce, which are the centerpieces of these dishes.

The cassava leaf sauce is one of the most intriguing flavors I've encountered in Philadelphia. The spicy green puree has an undertone of smoked pike (flakes of the fish are blended in) tempered by a subtle finish of peanut butter and sweet palm oil. It's served with mutton or fish; I preferred the meat because it added another musky layer of flavor.

The superb mafe (peanut butter stew) was far more accessible. The creamy, rich stew, tinted orange with tomato, had an earthy undercurrent of chile. Mafe is typically served with mutton, but it was equally delicious on its own as a sauce spooned over steamed white rice.

Unlike many of its West African neighbors, where the pounded yam called foo-foo is the principal starch, Senegal is a rice-loving country. In fact, the Senegalese who were brought to America as slaves were responsible for the evolution of South Carolina's Lowcountry rice cookery. One of Senegal's most famous dishes is jolof rice, or ris gras in French, a reddish-brown pilaf infused with tomato, oil and meat juices.

At Le Dakar the jolof is made with grains of Vietnamese broken rice and comes in two tasty versions. Thiebou dieun brings jolof with steamed fish smeared with tangy cassava leaf sauce alongside chunks of stewed vegetables, including starchy cassava root (or yucca), carrots and sweet cabbage. Thiebou yap is a meat variation with chunks of flavorful beef served with diced turnips and other root vegetables.

While Le Dakar's meats and poultry were infused with the flavors of their marinades, they arrived at the table a little dry. They relied instead on marvelous sides of intensely flavored onions eaten with them to provide moistness and zing.

I've tasted yassa chicken elsewhere served as a sort of stew. Here the mustard-seed-crusted chicken had no sauce, but came with tangy caramelized onions that revitalized the dry meat.

In the same way, charcoal-grilled slices of tender lamb in a dish called debe found the perfect foil in two contrasting side dishes: a crunchy salad of vinegar-marinated onions and sweet rounds of fried plantains.

The only dish I didn't enjoy was the soupou kandia, a soup also called "gom bo" in deference to the okra that gives it an unmistakable ooze. Having grown to love the distant gumbo cousins of this stew in Louisiana, I was far less bothered by the texture than by the burnt aroma of the red palm oil added just before serving — an acquired taste I've yet to acquire.

But Le Dakar's only dessert is a comfort-food winner. Thiakiri is a couscous variation on rice pudding, made with coarser Senegalese millet in place of finer Moroccan semolina and sour cream sweetened with honey replacing the custard. The tiny grains give the refreshingly tart, thick cream a satisfying texture. It's filling but extremely addictive.

I ate nearly an entire pint of it as I waited for my Senegalese mint tea. The tea is intense, the tea world's equivalent of espresso. No wonder Le Dakar serves it in demitasse cups. Each frothy cupful delivers a vaguely bitter, medicinal aftertaste followed by a caffeine jolt.

It wasn't to everyone's taste at my table, so out of politeness to our hosts I drank more than one cup. Before I knew it, the sounds and flavors of Senegal had entranced me, too.


Craig LaBan's e-mail address is claban@phillynews.com.
Craig LaBan Inquirer Restaurant Critic
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