West African cuisine is the soul of soul food, the seed of some of the finest cooking of the Americas -- from jambalaya to jerk, Bajan "bakes" to Bahian budim.
The slave trade linked the continents via "The Middle Passage," a strong Atlantic current carrying ships from West Africa to Brazil and the Caribbean islands; foodstuffs and ways to cook them traveled in both directions. Regardless of the colonial twists, plantation frills, and creative-poverty make-do-ness that's given rise to such wide variations, West African food is the foundation of the cooking of the South -- the South that starts at the Chesapeake Bay and runs down past Rio. But until now, this cuisine has been hard to find in the Bay Area. The northeastern Red Sea cuisine of Ethiopia is widely represented but quite different; even less similar is the South African veggie-food featured at one local eatery. So our first recent chance to sample West African cookery came with this winter's opening of Keur-Baobab, which features the food of Senegal, a former French possession smack on the left-hand bulge of the continent.
Keur-Baobab initially surprised me in several ways. Although I've been cooking West African dishes (from recipes out of cookbooks, Web sites, fading xeroxes, etc.) for almost as long as I've been cooking, the only other West African restaurant I've ever eaten at was a short-lived Nigerian spot in Oakland, staffed and patronized by Nigerians -- only. Its food (dried-fish soup with big balls of pounded cereal-starch called foofoo, for example) was wondrously exotic, but outsiders were received with a "guess who's coming to dinner" chilly tolerance. Keur-Baobab, in contrast, is ecumenical, friendly, and cozy. Half a block from the "No Money, No Honey" pawnshop on Mission, it's on a formerly scary stretch that's now looking up, with a bright bar on the corner and a couple of lively open-air groceries nearby. The restaurant's floor is parrot-green and the walls, warmed with cherry wood-stained panels, are decorated with eye-catching African fabrics, paintings, masks, and the Senegalese flag; under glass table protectors are droll black-and-white drawings depicting Senegalese bus transportation. (At least Muni's problems don't involve goats!) A silver-haired Frenchwoman with a radiant smile presides over a small table just inside the door; there's also a tall Senegalese cook (and occasional server). A petite French-accented waitress brings to mind Anais Nin, and owner Marc Senghor is an outgoing, energetic young man with Bedouin-like features and complexion. Senghor, an impresario who arranges local African music events, was known around the Mission as "Mr. Goodginger" when he delivered his bottled ginger juice to the neighborhood groceries.
The patrons are mainly cosmopolitan under-30s, distinctly less rowdy than their agemates at certain other local playgrounds -- perhaps because the sub-Saharan music on the sound system is usually played at sub-shouting volume.
Senegal itself is well-situated for eating: Its transitional climate zone includes savanna and tropical forest, pasturage and rice paddies, with an ample seacoast (albeit interrupted by the skinny inward-jutting rectangle of Gambia -- a former English possession whose odd shape bespeaks nefarious imperialist machinations of old). But another surprise -- a less pleasant one -- was the shortness of Keur-Baobab's menu. There are just three appetizers, three entrees, three desserts, and only one of the last has been consistently available. For weeknight main courses, as TJ noted, "There's chicken, or chicken, or no chicken." Saturday and Sunday nights there's fish, too. The menu gives you just a taste of Senegal, not a survey. Hopefully, it'll expand with time because the restaurant certainly looks like a keeper -- it was well-populated at both our visits.
We started each meal with irresistible thick-sliced fried plantains ($2). Brochettes ($3.75) have skewered cubes of toughish but tasty beef charred medium-rare, flavored with a subtle marinade hinting of peanut, onion, and a soupçon of hot pepper that sneaks up on you after you swallow. Pastelles ($2.50) are a pair of triangular pastries of flaky yeast-dough, stuffed with flaked dark-meat fish that tasted like mackerel. "These are so much like Trinidadian pastelles!" I marveled nostalgically. "When I was staying down the block from a bakery in Port of Spain, I ate pastries like this for breakfast nearly every day. They were spelled differently, and had chicken or meat fillings instead of fish, but were really extremely similar." All three appetizers are served with a slightly spicy dipping sauce of shredded onion and tomato that tastes especially right with the pastelles.
Weekday main courses consist of mafe of chicken, yassa of chicken, or vegetarian mafe or yassa, with rice or couscous. We both loved the mafe ($6.75), described on the menu as "a dish originally from the border of Mali." In fact, several West African countries lay claim to mafe; it's a dish worth claiming. Here, it was a mountain of rice topped with a succulent, slightly spicy peanut butter sauce, which enrobed eggplant chunks, sliced cabbage, very sweet carrot hunks, and somewhat overcooked chicken leg-thigh pieces. The vegetarian version (also $6.75) substitutes some starchy vegetable slices (perhaps plantain) for the fowl. Either way it's a healthy-tasting dish, and a healthy portion in both senses of the word. In West Africa (as in Asian countries) animal protein is usually eaten more as a condiment than a main event; it lends flavor to the heap of starch that's the center of dinner. The other entree, yassa ($5.50, or $6.25 with couscous instead of rice), is "a dish originally from Cassamance in Southern Senegal." Cassamance, by the way, is nearly isolated from the rest of Senegal thanks to the weird insertion of Gambia. We found the yassa harder to love than the rich, sunny mafe -- perhaps because we tried it with the couscous: It was very dry. The chicken pieces (also overcooked) were covered with a strong- and sour-flavored heap of vinegary onions, sweet peppers, and a few hot pepper bits.
On Saturday and Sunday, until the kitchen runs out of it, there's also tiep ou diem ($10), the national dish of Senegal. Pronounced roughly "cheep oo jeem," it's a savory heap of red rice; a sort of pilaf with tomato juices slowly cooked in (not just dumped on at the end like American "Spanish rice"), boasting several chunks of firm white fish (perhaps turbot) and the same veggies as the other dishes. If you're familiar with West African cooking you'll recognize it as a coastal variation of Jollof rice, a dish dear to Wolof-speakers throughout the area.
The final and most emphatic surprise at Keur-Baobab was the rather gentle spicing of all the food. Most West African recipes I've seen call for pretty considerable quantities of chiles, fresh or dried. "Hot pepper is really important in West Africa," I told TJ, kvetching mildly about the mildness. Not only do chiles turn every dish (even the region's original staple, millet) into an adventure, but the extraordinary concentration of vitamin C in dried hot peppers prevented scurvy, a fatal disease for everyone on board ships during the centuries of the slave trade. Anyway, since nobody at the restaurant asked how spicy we wanted the food, we assume that it's mildish because the cook or owner likes it that way, or because they assume that Americans do.
The restaurant has applied for a beer and wine license; while it's pending you can bring in your own if you like. We tried a couple of house-made juices ($2.50). The ginger juice proved similar to Jamaican ginger "beer" -- sweet, strong, very gingery, a probable cure for whatever ails you. Bissap is an elaborate, soft-flavored Senegalese fruit punch based on hibiscus juice (aka "sorrel" or, in Spanish, "jamaica") flavored with pineapple juice, vanilla, nutmeg, orange blossoms, and ginger. Both are overwhelming concoctions.
The only dessert available at our visits was tiakri ($3.25), a loose creamy pudding of yogurt, sour cream, and couscous with raisins flavored with orange flower water, honey, and nutmeg. It smelled flowery and tasted something like Indian kheer; the portion was large enough to feed three. (Or four, if they ate mafe for dinner.) The other two desserts involve house-made ice creams (ginger and coconut); maybe the house will actually make them when the weather turns warmer. (For now, the restaurant may be a little bit of Africa, but we know that outside, the intemperate zone awaits us.) I hope the rest of the menu expands, too, so it'll bring diners back for repeats and keep this unique eatery flourishing.