Senegalese Surprise

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.

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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.

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