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Despite the dwindling number of Senegalese street vendors peddling knockoff designer handbags and counterfeit watches, the city’s stock of Senegalese restaurants continues to grow, especially in Harlem’s Little West Africa. There are now five on the two-block stretch of West 116
th Street between Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass, and a few more on the adjacent avenues. Newest is Dibiterie Cheikh, which advertises French-West African Cuisine on its awning. The compact premises are located across the street from the city’s grandest Senegalese eatery , Africa Kine, which boasts such unexpected amenities as a ballroom, a coat check, and a carryout window, situated on two floors connected by a sweeping stairway. Why on earth would you want to go to Dibiterie Cheikh instead?
In Wolof, the language of Senegal’s dominant tribe, “dibi” refers to any dish of grilled lamb. Combing French and Wolof, “dibiterie” signifies an open-air chophouse that specializes in lamb roasted over charcoal. The Dakar yellow pages lists six, and now New York has one, too. Named after proprietor Cheikh Goumbal, Dibiterie is the usual bare-brick box we’ve come to expect from West African restaurants. True to form, there are two humongous monitors, both tuned to CNN. Among other things, these are intended to help West African immigrants with their idiomatic English. Pictures of Senegalese marabouts—Muslim holy men—dot the walls.
Predictably, the dibi ($10) is awesome. Rather than serving lamb chops, as other Senegalese and Ivory Coast restaurants do, Dibeterie hacks irregular hunks of lamb from the leg, flame-blackened morsels that include bits of skin and bone. The taste of this locally sourced halal meat is far superior to anything you’d find in a midtown brasserie. The humongous entrée comes with salad, a small plastic cup of vinaigrette, and rice decorated with tomatoes and onion relish. The same mustard-laced relish accompanies the fried or grilled pink snapper ($12), served whole, and it also smothers the roasted chicken. Sure, the half-chicken is commendably crisp and greasy underneath the relish, but even better is the pintade ($10), a roasted guinea fowl that’s mainly dark meat, with a more assertive flavor. Choose french fries, white rice, or fried plantains to go with your main course.
Big news: Dibiterie Cheikh has broken the appetizer barrier. While most West African restaurants eschew first courses, Dibiterie provides two: fataya ($5), four small half-moon empanadas stuffed with kippered herring, accompanied by a fiery Scotch bonnet dipping sauce; and nems, Vietnamese spring rolls stuffed with beef and vermicelli. Why Vietnamese? These rolls were brought to Dakar by Vietnam War refugees in the early 1970s. Back in Saigon, pork would have been the preferred stuffing, but these spring rolls remain otherwise faithful to the originals.
While dinner at Dibeterie is mainly French-leaning entrées, lunch is reserved for tribal fare. The midday menu swarms with oddities rarely seen before in local eateries, including caldou (diced fish in okra sauce) and domoda (lamb cubes in spicy tomato sauce). Alas, only two or three items are typically available per day, always including the national dish of cheb ($9), a vegetable-intensive spin on paella. Recently, I enjoyed thiou (“chew”), a fish fillet in a dense sauce that incorporates orange yams, potatoes, and caramelized onions. It was so tasty, I resolved to visit often enough to try all 11 luncheon entrées.