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Décor, D'Accord!

An unexpected taste of Vietnam in Harlem's Little West Africa

Given the accelerating gentrification of Harlem—with franchise restaurants swarming the landscape like locusts—I've been worrying about West 116th Street, the city's premier West African neighborhood. Following a week-long binge on cheb, sauce de feuilles, and fufu, I'm pleased to report there's nothing to worry about. As a restaurant census reveals, the population of African cafés has actually increased. And so has the number of butchers, booksellers, haberdashers, and storefront mosques, so that a walk down the street at dusk reveals a tumultuous scene as colorful as any in Dakar or Abidjan. On 116th and the adjacent avenues, I counted four Senegalese, one Malian, one Guinean, one Ghanaian, and one Ivory Coast restaurant, in addition to an Ethiopian coffee shop that seems inspired by Starbucks.

What's more, the restaurants are getting more sophisticated. While the prototypical African café is a smudgy, off-white box with a few stick chairs, a makeshift counter, and rickety tables, some joints have developed a decor . Named after the sub-Saharan tree said to have been planted with its branches in the ground and roots thrust skyward, old-timer Baobab now has créme banquettes and oil paintings, including one of Martin Luther King. A check of the tiebou djenne ("cheb," $8)—the paella-like national dish of Senegal—confirms that Baobab still rocks. Though the restaurant has pressed the delete button on the palm oil, the bluefish remains well stuffed with herbs, and the orbiting veggies now include cassava, carrots, plantain, eggplant, cabbage, and okra.

A block west the flagship of the Senegalese fleet, Africa Kine, has been replaced by a clubhouse for bus drivers, who park their vehicles at the corner and dash in to extract their brown-bag lunches from the fridge. But the selfsame Senegalese has moved across the street to a two-story premises that looks like an Irish bar in Yonkers, with acres of green paint, a curving stairway lined with Chinese ceramics, wood paneling, and brocade curtains. Jeez! And, probably for the first time in the annals of the city's African dining scene, a menu has been posted outside.

Mandela looks out at Baobab
Shiho Fukada
Mandela looks out at Baobab

The waitress takes our lunch orders and feeds them via touch screen into the computer. When 20 minutes have passed, she goes down a stairway to the kitchen and emerges holding a plate in each hand. How surprising, given the modernity of the premises, that the food is less reconstructed than at other Senegalese jointson the block. Palm oil still makes the cheb shine like a newly washed fire engine, and there's a delicious umbra of it fortifying the peanut sauce in lamb mafe ($9). These prices, by the way, cover plates big enough for you and a friend to gorge yourselves and probably have leftovers.

Following a practice increasingly common in Senegalese restaurants, lunch features traditional tribal fare, while the evening meal is quasi-French, showcasing wonderful grilled lamb chops (debe, pronounced "dibby," $10), an astonishing eight to a plate; whole grilled porgy with mustard-onion relish; and lackluster chicken brochettes. Still, the most interesting thing we ate were nems. Offered with a fishy-tasting vinegar, these fried spring rolls, bulging with vermicelli and ground meat, were first brought to Dakar by Vietnamese refugees in the early 1970s. As with every other import from reggae to zippered hoodies, the Africans embraced them immediately.

 
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