Just inside the front door stands a fat and frowzy Italian chef dressed in whites, nearly six feet tall including his toque. Well, it’s not a real chef, but one of those life-size plaster statues usually placed in front of pizza parlors, beckoning and winking lewdly.
While I usually recoil at these figures, I didn’t mind this one. The place he’s inviting you into is Keur Mame Diarra (“House of Mama Diarra”), one of Harlem’s Senegalese stalwarts, and a place you can always depend on when you need some cheb. Once you hurry past the statue, you’ll discover a deep, dark room outfitted with comfy green-upholstered booths and decorated with tubs of artificial flowers, pictures of snipped tin in ornate frames, and an entire collection of animated 3-D photos of waterfalls, like the kind you find in bars. Who’s been hitting the upstate yard sales?
The restaurant is named after Mame Diarra, mother of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, 19th-century founder of the Mouride sect of Sufism, the mainstream of Senegalese Islam. A cult of women has formed around Mame Diarra, much like the Roman Catholics who admire the Virgin Mary more than Jesus himself. No pictures of Mame Diarra exist, though there is one photo of her son, showing a frail figure lost in a white hooded robe against a sub-Saharan backdrop. You’ll see the picture in nearly every braiding parlor, Islamic bookstore, and Senegalese restaurant in town (including this one).
Mame Diarra’s menu is evenly divided between lunch and dinner, with 13 dishes offered at each meal. There are no appetizers or desserts to speak of, and there is certainly no alcohol, which is prohibited under Mouridism. Ginger or bissap (hibiscus) drinks are your best options ($2). Following a custom established in New York’s Senegalese restaurants a decade ago, lunch features tribal fare, while dinner represents a Senegalese spin on French cuisine. Back home, most West Africans eat their biggest meal (often their only meal) around two o’clock, but now immigrants can opt to make dinner the largest meal instead.
Cheebu jen ($10) is listed as lunch, though it’s sometimes available at dinner, too. Regarded as the Senegalese national dish, “cheb” was probably inspired by the paella brought to the west coast of Africa by Iberian traders in the 16th century. Keur Mame Diarra’s splendid version begins with big chunks of dense-fleshed fish, stuffed with a thick purée of garlic, cilantro, and green onions. Along with an assortment of vegetables, the fish is scattered across the top of a rice mountain cooked in rich oily broth, with dried stockfish and tamarind thrown in for extra flavor. I’ve been told that cheb can be judged by the number of vegetables on top. At Mame Diarra, the lush collection includes carrots, cabbage, manioc, eggplant, okra, and calabaza squash. The restaurant also puts its own unique spin on the dish: Instead of using Scotch bonnet peppers, the cook throws in Italian cherry peppers, tarter and less spicy than bonnets. Maybe she got the peppers from the winking guy out front.
Only three or four choices are likely to be available at any given meal. One afternoon, we relished cu diwitr ($9), a deep bowl of stewed vegetables in bright red palm-oil sauce. Underneath, we found an entire grilled tilapia, slashed on the sides like it had been attacked by a pirate. The skin remained miraculously crisp under the stew’s damp onslaught. Another day, we tried suppu kandja, which immerses scraps of fish and meat in a thick okra sauce that is only slightly slimy.
Now for the French-leaning dinner stuff. One evening, we ordered debbe (pronounced “dibbie,” $10), a simple plate of grilled lamb chops. This entrée is so beloved of the Senegalese that a restaurant on West 116th Street is named Dibiterie Cheikh. Tasting of smoke and pasture, the long, slender halal chops—six in number—arrive heaped haphazardly on the plate. A thick mustard sauce teeming with al dente onions inundates both chops and the abundant accompanying salad. The same salad and sauce also comes with pintade, a guinea hen roasted so perfectly that it would make a French colonialist swoon. Available at both lunch and dinner, poisson grille (grilled fish, $12) constitutes another dependable standard— a large specimen of the sea-bass family, somewhat beleaguered under its mustard- onion dressing. It’s OK, you can scrape some of it off; the fish won’t mind.