Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Whither Harlem? (Observations on West African food)

Mor Thiane owns Keur Mamma Diallo, a wonderful, humble Senegalese restaurant (listed below) on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. It's one of those gentle gems, not showy but welcoming and delicious - that, I fear, is being obscured by some of the newer, more upscale places making their way into Harlem.

In some ways, Harlem is simply changing too fast. A few of my thoughts about Harlem follow below...

One of my two favorite restuarants in Harlem, Sokobolie, at 2523 Frederick Douglass Boulevard just north of 135th Street, is in the throes of change. Guinean owner Lariou Diallo, who opened his first place about 14 years ago (I'm not sure it was at this location then) has created a very popular venue with his West African buffet - the only one I know of in Manhattan. There I've had amazing oatters of peanut stew, okra stew, cassava leaf stew, with various combinatons of goat, lamb and beef. There are different types of rice and some couscous - long grained and short grained rices all prepared in different, delicious ways. I usually get a home-made, sinus-clearing ginger beer with my meals and have taken several tour groups there. It's the type of place I used to pass by many times - the exterior is entirely uninviting - until one day, a few years ago, I just decided to look inside and found a warm welcome.

Well, I've also been worrying about Sokobolie, because it's in a two-story building in an area of Harlem where new condos and fancy, upmarket rehabs are becoming the norm. Lo and behold, a few months back I noticed a new canopy across the street announcing the imminent arrival of "Baraka," featuring an African buffet. New competition, I wondered? But I hadn't noticed the small print: "The old Sokobolee" - yes, with a different spelling.

Then, in early June, Dario Diallo, Lario's sister, told em that the grand opening would be taking place on a Sunday evening when the prime minister from Guinea was in town. So I headed over for the event. Although I'd been told the ribbon-cutting would take place some time "after 7 PM," I wasn't expecting it to be at 9:45 PM, but so it was. By then, men and women - the women in gorgeous African gowns and headscarves - were packing the front of the restaurant and spilling into the street, which had been closed off for this event. (Fortunately, it was a comfortable summer evening.) The prime minister, Lansana Kouyate, wore a white tunic and a white fez-like hat. He cut the ribbon and an elite group of people crowded into the new restaurant, which was full of food. Being an "onlooker" and non-invitee, I went to the local deli, bought a vanilla "Coke Zero" and headed home.

Aliou had mentioned that he hired a Dominican chef to add Caribbean dishes to the new place, so that, effectively, this would be New YOrk City's first African-Dominican restaurant. It was larger than the original, and gorgeous. I couldn't wait to take folks there.

Two weeks later, I was leading a custom tour through the neighborhood, planning on ending at the new Sokobolie/Baraka. Alas, it was closed, but the old one was still open. Dariou was there, looking sad. "We still need to pass some inspections," she said, and couldn't give me an opening date.

Oh well.

I had a great meal recently at Keur Mamma Diarra at 2491 FDB (128th St). It's a 7-year-old Senegalese place that Mor Thiane has run for about 2 years. I had a peanut butter stew with lamb and basmati rice, so delicious I practically drank it. I also like to buy the thiakry there - it's either a breakfast or dessert, made with couscous, sour cream, and fruit. I presume a critical amount of sugar is added because it's quite sweet, and I'm not sure the sweetness comes only from the fruit! A nice feature of this place is the free coffee, and it is STRONG - just what I needed last time I visited. Thiane is a wonderful, welcoming man, who is pleased that more "white people," as he bluntly put it, are interested in his food. He already apparently is doing well, but is happy to benefit from increased Harlem tourism!

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