Grains of Paradise


There are three dozen West African restaurants currently operating in Gotham. Located in every borough, these places offer food that ranges from okra-sauced fufus to peanut-crusted kebabs to cassava stodges topped with fried fish, exhibiting novel and powerful flavors unknown to most Americans. You’d think such a rich trove would have long since been raided by chefs, who have been combing the planet for new tastes. But these restaurants have been ignored by the media and the dining public, and truth be told, few have actively tried to recruit a wider audience.

But inevitably, African flavors will work their way into our cuisine, as they did centuries ago when first introduced by slaves. This time the point of entry is not the plantation kitchen, but the French bistro. Named after a film about an incestuous brother and sister written by Jean Cocteau, Les Enfants Terribles is located on the dark eastern end of Canal Street. The chef, Abdhul Traore, hails from Côte d’Ivoire, and he’s making a noble attempt to incorporate elements of West African cooking into his menu. I happen to believe the attempts are way too timid, and that local diners—as their current love affair with chile peppers, garlic, and gorgonzola has proven—are ready for flavors every bit as sharp as Mother Africa can provide. We embraced sun-dried tomatoes, why not sun-dried stockfish?

Les Enfants’ sirloin steak ($18.50), called by the tongue-tying name of korhogofefemougou, is an impressive rhomb of meat that arrives grilled to order and lightly dusted with kola and guinea pepper. A roundish red nut, the former was one of Coca-Cola’s original ingredients. Africans chew kola nuts for hours on end for their bitter taste and caffeine kick. Guinea pepper—also known as “grains of paradise”—is a kernel that delivers a mellow burn and a slightly sweet taste. Native to West Africa, it was popular in Europe during the Middle Ages as a cheap substitute for black pepper.

A very good marinated and braised chicken ($16) comes with “sauce mafe.” As served in local Senegalese cafés like La Marmite (see Chow Choices), mafe is a lake of spicy peanut sauce with an island or two of chicken or lamb. At Les Enfants, the roles are reversed, with a huge mass of chicken and a comically small cup of mafe. Though the sauce is bland by African standards, the quantity is sufficient to give you the general idea. Still, the chicken does fine on its own, and I suspect most diners simply ignore the peanut sauce. Another of the chef’s Senegalese inspirations is the side of plainish red rice that comes with three bacon-wrapped scallops. Though the menu calls it “tcheboudjenn,” it has none of the tart and fishy complexity of real cheb, alas!

The menu plays around with Moroccan flavors with some success in casbah lamb ($17), a monster shank surrounded by a dice of root vegetables, and Brazilian flavors too, in the skirt steak called picanha à la Jobim. But look to the list of sides to find the dish dearest to the hearts of Ivory Coast residents. The twice-fried plantain chips ($4) are known as aloko back home, and often constitute an entire meal when accompanied by a spicy red sauce. At Les Enfants the sauce is none too spicy, but once again, you’ll get the general idea.