Tucked under the chin of the verdant and mountainous Marcus Garvey Park, African Grill occupies the former premises of a Harlem dive known as the Fifth Avenue Hideaway, the exterior still stenciled with a champagne bottle and a carousing couple. And though kente-cloth curtains and a carved wooden elephant now greet patrons, the original furnishings are largely intact: beveled mirrors, rows of booths with high-backed black sofas, and a long bar. Java makers replace the usual booze bottles, including a percolator, an espresso machine, and the redoubtable Mr. Coffee a tip-off that the proprietors hail from the Côte d'Ivoire, where the brown brew is a ruling passion.
If you peer through the Dutch door there's a pair of gleaming kitchens, where women bustle about wrapped in colorful batiks. To the right, a chalkboard broadcasts the daily bill of fare, which might be mistaken for that of a bistro in the Village, listing ragout, sauce arachide, dibi, poisson, steak poisson, vermicel, poulet, gigot, brochette, athieke, and salade. At one in the afternoon, our friendly waiter tells us he's still serving breakfast to his customers, who linger over omelets and bowls of latte. Several of the items on the blackboard have run out, but a couple of choices remain. The biggest surprise is ragout ($5), a savory lamb gravy jotted with finely ground meat and poured over hunks of creamy white yam, more filling than potato. Another lunchtime-only delight is kidneys ($4) sautéed with plenty of garlic and onions. Sided with petits pois and a gob of mayonnaise, the cubed gland has been so carefully cleaned it retains nary a whisper of uric acid, tasting like a richer and coarser version of liver. We also enjoy an expertly fried kingfish steak, rubbed with salt, pepper, and herbs, and served on a bed of athieke (pronounced "ah-check-ay"), the national dish of grated cassava stodge. The fish is heaped with a warm mustardy relish of onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes, a delicious accompaniment.
In the usual African fashion, starches, meats, and sauces can be mixed and matched at African Grill, but a couple of the sauces seemed out of character for an Ivoirian joint. Served with a big plate of rice, epinards ($5) was finely chopped spinach in a peanut puree flavored with tidbits of meat and fish, while feuille patate was a slurry of sweet-potato leaves displaying a subtle and engaging oxalic tang. It turned out that one of the cooks is from Guinea, and these leaf-based sauces are her contribution to the menu. Good as the feuille patate was, it couldn't match the transcendent claire viande ($5), which the waitress prosaically translated "beef stew." Bobbing with carrots and well-trimmed chunks of beef, it would not have been out of place at an effete Parisian table. Enriched with palm oil and sweetened with bay leaf, it was an African twist on a French classic.
But the mixture of French and African influences at several earlier meals didn't prepare us for the all-out Gallic binge of Saturday evening supper. Featured were a spiny, pan-roasted fish ($6) served with a vegetable-shot couscous, a trio of long-cooked beef ribs with vermicelli, and a massive fried lamb shank gigot ($10) of concentrated flavor. The oddly butchered shank included two bones with a joint in between, and there was so much meat that the dish went round the table several times without being exhausted. Also excellent was the salad ripe tomatoes, romaine, purple onions, and red cabbage carefully dressed with a thick homemade vinaigrette. You can't get more Ivoirian, or French, than that.
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