A decade ago, when African bistros began lining West 116th Street and popping up on the avenues, the Senegalese ruled, offering cheap and abundant one-dish meals like cheb, yassa, and mafe. Gradually, coffee-drinking and baguette-wielding immigrants from CÊote d’Ivoire infiltrated, and within six years their establishments came to dominate the area, while Malians and Guineans continued as a minor presence. Now the Senegalese have returned with a vengeance, introducing a style of bistro more cosmopolitan and stranger-friendly than ever before. Two establishments represent this trend.
Instead of Maggi, a ketchup bottle greets you as you sit down at Africa Restaurant #1, which recently relocated from a storefront further west. A laminated menu features a color photo of a gold-bedecked Fulani tribeswoman, and the interior sports a safari theme. Semicircles of thatch overhang the tables, evoking country huts that must seem as quaint to the African diners as they do to us. A hartebeest trophy nestles its truncated horns against the ceiling, as if restlessly trying to punch through to the tenement floor above.
The Senegalese mainstays have been shuffled onto a lunch menu (though you can still sometimes get them in the evening by asking), while dinner reflects an Africanized take on French cuisine. A heap of tasty charcoal-grilled lamb chops called dibi ($8) arrives with a vinaigrette salad and choice of french fries, couscous, or rice. An immense bluefish comes smeared with an unforgettable mustard-and-onion relish; at $10, it’s a deal you’d have trouble duplicating anywhere in Manhattan. One recent evening, though, between conversations on their cell phones, most diners seemed to be enjoying chebu yap ($7), a mound of mahogany broken rice surmounted by an outsize lamb shank inundated with oily natural gravy. New to Senegalese menus is a selection of soups. Cow foot ($8) features a dense and fiery broth, from which you can dredge pieces of rubbery, jelly-sloughing foot.
A few doors east, a hand-scrawled sign offering lamb head made me think Keur Sokhna might be Ivorian, even though “keur” is Wolof for “village.” Ivorian, too, seemed the table of dark-skinned men eagerly downing sandwiches loaded with chunks of lamb. I’d never seen sandwiches in a Senegalese restaurant before, but when I tried to order one, the waitress explained that the men had brought the baguettes in themselves. A bunch of bananas rested in the center of each table—a cheery touch that showed the restaurateurs were hip to what makes a place appealing.
Discovering that none of the advertised specials were actually available, we ordered the unfamiliar suluxu ($7), lamb in a powerful gravy that pits sun-dried stockfish against pureed peanuts: two powerful flavors in combat. The fish wins. Skipping the French-leaning dinner menu we asked for cheb, the paella-derived Senegalese national dish ($8), and were told a batch would be ready in 15 minutes. Proving to be well worth the wait, it was the best cheb ever tasted in New York, with five vegetables instead of the usual three, several hunks of fish—each slitted and stuffed with green onion and cilantro, a step usually skipped in America—and a hump of savory rice tinted chocolate brown.
Despite the excellence of the cheb, there seemed to be something missing, we mused as we sauntered down 116th past mosques and halal butcher shops. By the time we got to Adam Clayton Powell it hit us—the palm oil had been omitted, and with it cheb’s bright-red color. Chalk it up to popular American fears about saturated tropical oils. Good as that cheb was, I’m gonna miss it.