Fatou & Fama

The Yassa Chicken is marinated with garlic, mustard, lemon, and cooked in brown onion sauce. (Bonnie Weller / Inquirer)

It was late for a 2-year-old to be eating out on a busy Friday night. But it wasn't long before she fell into a deep sleep at the table next to ours, snug inside a cozy nest of African robes on her mother's lap.

Seeing her enveloped in that colorful fabric, with the rhythms of Senegalese songs and the aroma of yassa chicken dancing in the air, I could only imagine the exotic landscape of her dreams. Could she see the bustling marketplace of Dakar and the sandy pink beaches of her French-speaking mother's native land? Was she drifting far from this chilly urban corner at 40th and Chestnut?

The best ethnic restaurants have a way of transporting diners to another place (though they usually do it with their cuisine, not by lulling customers to sleep). At Fatou & Fama, the journey can be convincing, if only sporadically. Some dishes, especially those smothered in a tangy mop of onions, offer a good taste of Senegalese home cooking. But the menu as a whole falls short of complete immersion.

The pickings for authentic Senegalese food are slim in Philadelphia, even though the city's African population (about 45,000, according to the 2000 census) is growing faster than almost any other immigrant group. There was the modest Le Dakar on Baltimore Avenue, but its tasty peanut and cassava leaf stews couldn't sustain enough business, and the restaurant closed last year.

Fatou & Fama, meanwhile, appears to be thriving in this tidy pink dining room decorated with carved masks and swatches of kinte cloth.

Affable chef-owner Fatou N'Diaye has steadily climbed the ladder of success since moving here from Dakar in 1991. (She chose Philadelphia, she says, simply because she liked the sound of the name.) She opened her own restaurant seven years later.

In between, she worked a series of kitchen jobs, including a stint at Delilah's Southern Cafe in 30th Street Station. There, she learned to cook a mean fried chicken, indulgently cheesy macaroni, and candied yams — all of which play cameo roles at Fatou & Fama, along with some Caribbean favorites.

But the heart of this kitchen is the African specialties that anchored N'Diaye's menu at the restaurant's previous location, a converted rowhouse at 61st and Lansdowne.

Who could blame her for moving from that less visible spot in far West Philly to the more lucrative limelight of University City's ethnic-restaurant row?

The service is friendlier than at the old Fatou & Fama. Yet there seems little awareness of how to run a dining room. Our entrees often arrived before the appetizers, and once, we ended up busing our own table.

Customers often make allowances for bad service if a restaurant's food is special. But the cooking here has lost a little of its edge now that it caters to the Penn crowd instead of to transplanted Africans.

Still, some dishes give a nice sense of what West African cooking is about. For starters, there was a delightful pink lentil soup, a simple vegetarian puree scented with dill and onion that grew on me despite its low-key seasoning.

For livelier flavors, I enjoyed the akara, cloudlike fritters of mashed black-eyed peas, garlic, and a pinch of cayenne. Triangle-shaped turnovers called pastels had an interesting tomato-and-fish filling. But like many of Fatou & Fama's dishes, the best part was the onions, roughly chopped and cooked in a sauce sparked with peppers, herbs and garlic.

The yassa sauce, whether it blankets chicken, shrimp or fish, is essentially a vehicle for Onion Power. And it is easily the restaurant's best move, igniting the tastebuds with a lemony, Dijon mustard-infused tang the moment its slowly cooked onions land in your mouth.

Too many other dishes, however, lacked voltage. The West Indies-style stewed oxtail, which our server described as one of the restaurant's "light" dishes, was cloaked in a flavorless, gluey brown gravy. The fatty roasted lamb, called mechoui, languished beneath a similarly dull sauce.

The grilled dibi (marinated lamb) wasn't much better when judged by the quality of the meat — all bony shoulder and a leathery chew — but at least the zip of onions (both caramelized sweet and crunchy pickled) lent interest.

The Southern fried chicken had a fine, thin crust but was completely underseasoned. And an appetizer of fried plantains was slightly soggy, with a starchy, bland flavor.

N'Diaye's mafe, a traditional African peanut sauce, is a vegetarian version. She ladled it over lamb, but it was watery, lacking the complexity of mafes cooked with meat and infused with gamy juices. It desperately needed the fiery 911 habanero hot sauce that is served on request on the side. (No wonder it's called 911. This potent mash of incendiary peppers could resuscitate any dish.)

The jerk chicken, on the other hand, had no shortage of spice. But its store-bought marinade was all pepper, lacking the intriguing ginger and allspice overtones in other Caribbean sauces. And the Jamaican-style rice and peas was cooked to a cottony mush.

White rice is the starch of choice to serve with yassa. But I also loved the athieke, especially with grilled meats or fish. Those tiny grains of steamed cassava, which are similar to couscous but springier, earthier and faintly sour, are more a specialty of Ivory Coast than of Senegal. They also are extremely addictive. I could eat a plateful for dinner and call it quits.

But a couple of other items at Fatou & Fama are also worth sampling. The soupa kanja is one of the more authentic dishes, an okra stew melding the pungent undercurrents of palm oil, smoked fish and lamb into a full-flavored broth that is admittedly an acquired taste. I would have devoured mine if not for the addition of frozen spinach, which left an acrid aftertaste.

We fared much better with the chebujen, Senegal's national dish, a tomatoey broth filled with fish, vegetables and rice. The slice of kingfish seemed almost an afterthought and was so overcooked that it could have been mistaken for chicken. But its flavor infused the rice with a fulsome tang.

Wash it all down with a gulp of purple Mama Fama punch, a house blend of freshly squeezed ginger and sorrel juices, and for a moment you can almost imagine you're dining in Dakar. Now that would be a pleasant dream.