Treichville is a neighborhood in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, that bustles with open-air markets, transportation terminals, and nightclubs that commence at midnight and pulsate till dawn. It's the poorest and most African part of a city that likes to think of itself as modern and French. Treichville is also the name of New York's only full-blown Ivory Coast restaurant, with an ambitious menu that effortlessly mixes traditional African fare with all sorts of French flourishes. Evidence of this commingling is pepe soup de poisson. Nominally, it's a West African pepper soupa scalding scarlet concoction, sometimes boasting a piece of tough mutton or slab of smoky stockfish, that I've enjoyed at a Cameroonian carryout in Washington, D.C.; a Ghanaian strip-mall café in Houston; and ladled from a Nigerian lunch wagon just north of Chicago's loop. The version at Treichville, however, is much more bountiful, bristling with crab legs, mussels, clams, shrimp, and hunks of whole fish, including an ugly catfish head sprouting feelers around its mouth, imparting a marvelous gluey texture to the broth. In short, Treichville's seafood pepper soup ($9) is the city's best bouillabaisse.
Located on a side street, the exterior is narrow and completely anonymous, and it's difficult to tell you're about to enter a restaurant. In contrast to other African joints in town, the interior is functional and cosmopolitan, without any carved masks, maps, or travel posters. Rather, the walls are clad with linoleum resembling brick. A hostess presides behind a high counter, and behind her a busy kitchen is visible. Seating is limited to four or five unmatched tables, including one oddly shaped like a chevron, making us wonder what its original purpose was. A bright pink sign in French forbids patrons from discussing politics, concluding with the italicized slogan "Unité et Fraternité."
Though separate menus are marked Lunch and Dinner, dishes from both are typically served in the evening. The hostess marks Xs next to the ones currently available. The lunch menu is dominated by thick soups that come with a choice of mash, polished rice, or attieke: a sour white meal beloved of Ivorians made from fermented manioc. One soup ($8) features "garden eggs"canned white eggplant. They've been pureed, and into the resulting thick liquid have been deposited an odd collection of ingredients, including smoked turkey wing, fish filet, king crab, and gooey cow foot. Another soup finds the same collection immersed in a thick okra stew. Still another resembles Senegalese mafea thick peanut gravy veined with palm oil. Though an intriguing-sounding pistachio soup is listed, it was never available on our visits.
The signature mash is foutou, a mixture of manioc and plantain that attains a rubbery texture, yellowish color, and sweetish taste. Placali is a mash I'd never encountered beforean amazing limpid mass of translucent starch generated by a time-consuming process of fermenting, mashing, drying, and reconstituting manioc. Highlights of the dinner menu include a halfgrilled chicken ($8) that, in its smallness, concentrated flavor, and stringiness, resembles birds I've eaten in West Africa. The chicken comes heaped with a mustardy dice of tomatoes and onions, and a large salad dressed with a French vinaigrette. There's also fried fish, grilled beef tongue, and veal brochettes. All are worth ordering, but it's the bouillabaisse and garden egg soup I still crave.
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