Go on Safari: Somalia’s Deep Flavors Surface in Harlem


Notoriously gamy and easy to mess up, goat benefits most from slow cooking and a heavy hand with the spices. So when I discovered that the meat in hilib ari, a Somali dish at Safari restaurant in Harlem (219 West 116th Street, 646-964-4252), had been roasted for six hours, I ordered with confidence. Follow suit and you’ll be rewarded with mostly boneless chunks of supple, sweet meat that retains little trace of the barnyard. Coriander and cumin pervade, along with the flavors of the green and red bell peppers and onions that are stir-fried with the cooked meat before serving. It’s a goat dish for sheepish eaters.

I’d put in my order late in the evening — Safari keeps halal, and owner Maymuuna Birjeeb tweaked her hours for the duration of Ramadan — and the kitchen had run out of rice for the goat. In the kitchen, chef Munira Musse, Birjeeb’s cousin, substituted a massive pile of noodles coated in a rich basil-rosemary butter sauce, a seeming aberration that makes perfect sense once you consider that Italy controlled a sizable chunk of Somalia from the late nineteenth century through the early days of World War II. She uses the same herbs to season “Chicken Fantastic,” a cream-simmered chicken hash popularized by Minnesotan Somalis, and “Pasta Saldata,” a tangle of spaghetti tossed in seriously bold bolognese. (Another cousin, chef and restaurateur Jamal Hashi, came in from Minnesota to consult on the menu.) There’s even a bit of Italo-African fusion in chopped steak sautéed with a combination of rosemary and mitmita, a dry rub containing ground chiles, cardamom, and clove favored in Ethiopia, Somalia’s neighbor to the west. [Editor’s note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of review.]

That’s just a hint of the taste-travel you’re in for during a meal at Safari, a 26-seat, dome-ceilinged space on West 116th Street. Many of Safari’s best recipes pulse with flavors familiar to South Asian cuisine. Musse (pronounced moo-seh) braises mango into a soft pulp for curry, strewn with Ethiopian berbere-spiced chicken (heavy on garlic and cardamom) or served on its own over a flavor-drenched pilaf decorated with raisins and sliced bell peppers.

In lieu of grains and pasta, some of Safari’s dishes include chapati. Musse’s version of the griddled flatbread is worth the order if only to soak up any leftover basbaas (house­-made hot sauce: a pale-green and coarse cilantro-based purée) you might have lying around. The crisped rounds form the base of an open-face sandwich layered with stewed vegetables, as well as heartier wraps filled with chicken or beef heaped with onions and peppers. There’s also a chapati sandwich stuffed with ground lamb “meatloaf” and diced pineapple, soaked in sauce made from the sesame-studded spice blend zaatar.

The menu’s lone seafood main course on our visits was Indian Ocean king mackerel. The chef tamed the oily steaks by marinating them with chiles, then broiled them and served them with a thick lime-pepper sauce and rice pilaf. The owner and her family hail from Kismaayo (pronounced keys-my-oh), and the Somali port city is well represented by “Kismaayo Chicken Suqaar”: an oval platter of diced poultry stained russet with pepper sauce and mixed with bell pepper and red onion. Its heat is mild but persistent, aided by that basbaas — a versatile condiment, it emerges. Adam Ibrahim, a cousin who moved from the Bay Area to help out at the restaurant, recommends spooning the stuff over just about everything. (It’s especially tasty on the goat.)

Ibrahim is a former rapper who managed the family’s grocery business in California. Here he helps out both at the front of the house and in the back — which helps explain the water glass that sat unfilled on my table for the duration of one of my meals.

Such glitches aside, Ibrahim takes time to introduce himself to the patrons at every table, grateful that there’s room for his native cuisine amid Harlem’s steadfast African dining scene. Musse is still perfecting the sweets on the restaurant’s dessert list (including coconut macaroons over gelato); in the meantime she’s serving the light and flaky chapati with a drizzle of honey to finish off meals.

“We’re the first to bring this kind of food to New York,” Ibrahim beams while serving us cups of ginger tea.

That fact alone makes Safari worth trying. The family’s hospitality and stove skills are reasons to return.

Correction published 7/29/15: Owing to a misunderstanding on the part of the writer, the original version of this review identified Adam Ibrahim as a chef-owner at Safari. Ibrahim’s cousin, Maymuuna Birjeeb, owns the restaurant; two other cousins, Jamal Hashi and Munira Musse, have served as chefs. The above version reflects the corrected text.