New Nigerian Rocks on Hendrix in East New York
While the Senegalese have boldly opened semi-upscale restaurants in Harlem and Clinton Hill, complete with annotated menus, and the Ghanaians have established numerous small groceries and cafés in the Bronx and Queens, and modest Ivory Coast, Malian, Guinean, Liberian, and Sierra Leonean eateries have come and gone in various boroughs, the Nigerians have remained elusive. Sure, there's Skipper's in Staten Island, and one or two other joints in obscure corners of Brooklyn and the Bronx, but a full-menu, user-friendly Nigerian restaurant still eludes us, even though Nigerians constitute the second-largest group of West African immigrants in New York, just behind Ghanaians, according to the 2000 census.
That's why I was so excited when a bicycle-riding friend called to say he'd passed a new African restaurant—recognizable by the tribal mask on the awning—in an industrial part of East New York, Brooklyn, only a block south of Atlantic Avenue. I was soon there with a couple of pals, including Lenny, who'd just returned from a six-month internship at a newspaper in Lagos. We found ourselves at a place called Festac, named after a Lagos zone famous for a 1977 arts festival. "It's now a wealthy neighborhood," Lenny noted.
The prim interior features a pair of waist-high vases covered with ceramic flowers, looking like they were smuggled out of Versailles. Above the wood-paneled wainscoting, the walls are painted the color of the reddish dirt that blows ceaselessly across West Africa. Soapy Nollywood films flicker on a flat-screen TV, interspersed with news reports about the spread of AIDS in the Nigerian countryside. A window looks into the kitchen where Abiodun Imasuen, the chef and owner, busies herself among pots and pans and giant cans of tomato sauce. She wiped her hands on her apron as she came out of the kitchen to greet us.
"Can you stand pepper?" she asked by way of warning. "Are you kidding?" I replied for all of us. "We love pepper more than life itself." Thereafter, we played a cat-and-mouse game with her—asking about various dishes on the long menu, with her replying that we wouldn't like them, by way of saying that those items were not being prepared that day.
Nevertheless, the food she put before us was awesome. The goat pepper soup ($8) turned out to be a bowl of concentrated pepper madness. We're not talking chilies or black peppercorns, either, but "grains of paradise," a vector of hotness indigenous to West Africa, somewhat reminiscent of Sichuan peppercorns. The cook had also asked if we liked organ meats, and—gee whiz!—the bowl was bursting with them, including kidney, liver, tripe, jelly-like skin, and other anatomic features normally known only to veterinarians. The soup was spectacularly aromatic, but parsing the meats required a lot of work. Days later, we sampled fish pepper soup ($10), which turned out to be as simple as the goat was complex: a whole poached tilapia deposited in a similar broth. It's a boon to those who prefer to eschew—rather than chew—goat offal.
While the pepper soups were true soups, other choices in the soup section were more thick sauces, served with hunks of meat on top and balls of bouncy pounded yam on the side. Eat them by nipping off some starch and using it to scoop bits of meat and smears of sauce. Always available is egusi ($10)—crushed melon seeds mixed with finely minced greens, creating a texture like scrambled eggs. On one occasion, the meat on top was big hunks of tough mutton; another time, it was bone-in oxtail. (West Africans prefer their meat tough, cursing the wimpy meats sold in American supermarkets.) After several attempts, we finally got Madame Imasuen to serve us "bitter leaf"—a sauce made from the leaves of Veronia anyadalina, an African shrub botanically related to the chicory beloved of Creoles in New Orleans.
We also ordered a whole poached porgy in a thin and only slightly spicy red sauce. Priced at $8, the fish was a great deal, and the white flesh pulled easily from the bones in forkfuls. Festac features bar snacks too, including wonderful flattened kebabs of charcoal-grilled beef rolled in crushed peanuts called suya ($5), and the little round cookies called chin-chin ($1), which go surprisingly well with the big bottles of palm nectar and Guinness that are the beverages of choice.
"Hey, this food tastes much better than the food I ate in Nigeria," asserted an ecstatic Lenny.
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