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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Wednesday, Mar 3 1999
Well, I'm not a restaurant reviewer. Not me. I do dinner -- with friends. Albeit strange friends. Or rather strangers who are about to become friends. Or something like that.

That's exactly what I was going to tell Clane down at this new Senegalese restaurant and bar in response to her long and highly detailed invitation outlining the varied collection of ethnically diverse and interesting people who'd come together from all over the world -- and all over the Mission -- to make this "extraordinary little place" happen.

But then I thought: It does sound like there's a story there. And a meal. And really, what more do I need?

As soon as I walked into Baobab, the story hit me right between the eyes. It's everywhere: in the authentic Senegalese glass paintings hanging from the walls and in the unusual aromas coming from the kitchen. It's in the eight or 10 homemade tables and the matching homemade bar. It's in the casual but genuine smiles of patrons and staff. But especially, it's in the juice.

The story goes like this:
One day, Marco, the Senegalese guy, started making ginger. That's juice -- made from ginger. He made lots of it and sold it all around town. And the people liked it.

Then one day, Marco fell over. (Making juice, it seems, can be a tough business.) So he decided to turn his storefront juice-making place into a restaurant. But this time he would definitely need some help. So all his friends signed on. There were the brothers -- Christopher, Patrick, and Benji -- who are German. And Lloyd, the set-designing carpenter. Clane, the self-described mouthy Jew behind the bar. And Sandra from France. Zsofia and Gabby from Hungary. Tina from Louisiana. Plus Kim and another Marco and another Pat and Jorge. OK?

When the restaurant moved in, the fresh, spiced ginger juice remained -- joined by fresh hibiscus juice and fresh tamarind juice. On my visit, Desmond, who was working the bar, whipped me up two of the resulting house specialties: a Flamboyant (hibiscus, lime, and vodka) and a Fleur (ginger, tamarind, and whiskey). They were both delicious.

Tina from Louisiana brought me a fried plantain appetizer. Yum. I don't know how they fried those plantains, but they were something special. And the two dipping sauces, one sweet and one creamy, worked awfully well.

Gabby from Hungary (who also makes films) played waitress, delivering a full sampling of all of Baobab's traditional Senegalese dishes.

Sandra from France, the head chef (and professional dancer) with fiery red schoolgirl braids, followed to explain each recipe: Maffe is a traditional stew from the border of Mali with vegetables in a peanut sauce over rice. Yassa is a grilled onion mixture in a mustard sauce from the Casamance region. Tchou is a tomato-based concoction with shrimp and yuca.

At $7.75, the Tchou is the most expensive thing on the menu (and that's a dollar more than anything else).

Gabby followed up with a sampler of marinated kebabs (shrimp, beef, and tofu) served with grilled vegetables and couscous. I've never really enjoyed tofu, but I swear theirs was eerily good.

While I ate, Marco from Senegal (Baobab's founder, and inspirer of many friends) stopped by to introduce himself. He showed me the original poster from his initial juice venture. "Mr. Good Ginger," read the label.

"How did you get started?" I asked.
"Everybody makes ginger in Senegal," answered Marco, in his melodic West African accent. "We drink ginger because it gives you strength and power. In history, people used to carry messages -- as runners. And if you were bringing the message to a village you would drink the juice of ginger and they know they never stop. They run, run, run. Because ginger gives you so much power, you know?"

I told Marco that his restaurant was very special and reminded me of restaurants I used to visit in New York but haven't really found here in San Francisco -- little places that replicate the actual restaurants of a country, because they are run by the people of those countries.

"When I was in France," said Marco, "I learned America is a big melting pot. But when I come here I see people don't mix together. And I say, 'Hey, here we are from all different countries, and we like everybody. Let's prove that here in the Baobab, all together. African. American. It's everybody here. Like the Mission. We share and we work together.' "

Marco explained that in Senegal, the baobab is the tree of community. "It's huge," he said, spreading his arms out wide. "We used to bury people in the tree."

While we spoke Gabby delivered two special desserts to the table. The orange tiaki, made with yogurt, raisins, orange blossoms, and couscous, was very interesting. But the banana flambe with rum and sugar was like nothing I'd ever tasted: so simple but so good.

I stepped out front to join Clane, who was smoking a cigarette on one of the wicker benches beside the palm tree. "Thank you for coming," she said, tossing her weathered black boa over her shoulder.

"Thank you for inviting me," I replied. "This is a very special place."
"You know," she told me, "for the first couple of months everybody worked for free. Everybody was volunteering, until the place started turning a profit. And not in some self-conscious 'look how diverse we are' trip. But in a very heartfelt way. In the spirit of what makes the Mission good to me."

I just wish I had some way to tell people about it.
Baobab: 3388 19th St. (at Mission), 643-3558. Open Wednesday-Sunday 6 p.m.-2 a.m; brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

By Barry Levine

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Barry Levine

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