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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

NYC Restaurant Review: Dakar Senegalese Food in Clinton Hill


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In general I have found African cuisines greatly under appreciated. Ethiopian has caught on as well as North African food like Moroccan, but most African cuisines are unknown to most Americans. This is a shame because the handful of African restaurants I have found have generally been quite good.

Dakar is a good example of this. Located in Clinton Hill, at 285 Grand Ave (between Lafayette ave and Clifton pl), it was a short bus ride away for us. The menu had already hooked us in with its mix of Senegalese and other African dishes. I had read some very disparaging customer reviews on some websites, but we found nothing to complain about. The service was good. I got the impression that any time something took awhile to come it was because it was being made fresh rather than just being scooped out of a pot prepared long before as is done at many restaurants. And the food was quite good.

We started with Pepe Soup, a fairly spicy fish soup. This really is a bit spicy, even to me, so spice wimps should avoid it. But if you are like Joy and me and appreciate food that kicks back, the Pepe soup will satisfy you. One touch that impressed me is that although they brought us bread before the meal (standard, decent French bread) they brought us more specifically to go with the soup. The bread brought before the meal was cut thick while the bread brought for the soup, though the same kind of bread, had been warmed enough to give it a very slight crunch and had been sliced much thinner so it went with the soup better. That kind of small touch shows real thought about the food.

We also got two appetizers. The one truly spectacular dish was the shrimp and sweet potato fritters. We liked everything, but this dish stood out as being nearly perfect. I wouldn't have necessarily picked shrimp and sweet potatoes going well together, but they combined perfectly with a salad and a kind of sweet and sour sauce to go with it. Highly recommend this one. We also got plantain papillote, which was a whole, roasted plantain with tamarind coleslaw. Now, having spent a few months in Western Samoa, I can tell you that there is only so much you can do with a whole plantain. Roasting it whole gives it a slight, caramelized sweetness which went well with the sourness of the tamarind sauce. And, spicy soup aside, this begins a theme that I noticed in the cuisine of sweet mixed with sour in several of the dishes. The plantain was good and filling, though not on par with the fritters.

For main courses we got yassa guinnaar, which was roasted chicken with a lemon and onion comfit and jasmine rice, and vegan mafe, a peanut and vegetable stew with millet couscous. The chicken was quite good, though a little too sour for my tastes. I think this one dish missed just the right balance of sweet and sour, but was still good. The chicken was prepared just right, not dry at all. The stew was a bit like a vegetarian tagine and I did find myself thinking it might be better with some lamb or chicken in it, but it was none the less quite good. Perhaps my second favorite dish next to the fritters. The stew didn't follow the sweet/sour theme of most of the meal, but instead depended on peanuts and the flavor of the vegetables. I have always liked the use of peanuts (also called groundnuts in Africa) in African cooking and this dish was a good example. I found myself using the bread left over from the soup (nice and thinly sliced with a slight crunch to it) to dip in the peanut sauce.

With dinner we ordered the tamarind and the ginger juices. We loved them, but be warned. They are potent flavors. If your idea of a good ginger beverage is ginger ale, this is not for you. If you like a potent ginger beer, then you are getting closer to what real ginger juice is like. I love it, but it is a tad over powering. Similarly, with the tamarind juice, if you think of the sweet tamarind chutney in Indian cooking when you think tamarind, this juice will surprise you because in its more natural form tamarind is quite sour. If you like strong flavors, and I do, you'll like these juices.

For dessert we ordered a coconut custard with roasted mango and sweet millet with yogurt. Again, continuing the sweet/sour theme. The sweet millet with yogurt was very good with a contrast in textures between the grain and the yogurt. The coconut/mango combination was particularly striking. The smooth, coolness of the coconut flavor was a strong contrast with the sharpness of the roasted mango. My first bite of it I felt the contrast was more of a clash and I wasn't sure I liked it. But it was intriguing and by the third bite or so I was enjoying the sharp contrast in flavors. I would order both desserts again, but found I particularly liked the coconut/mango one once I got the hang of it.

Price was overall quite moderate. Appetizers and soups from $4-8. Main courses $10-15. They also offer some good-sounding sandwiches (served with yucca fries or plantain, and salad) for $7-8. For the price quite worth it.

One aspect we could not sample (having to put our kids to bed) was they have free salsa dancing from 10 PM - 3 AM. So they have nightlife for after dinner, but we didn't stay for it.

Would not consider this one of my top picks for restaurants, but we enjoyed it, the ingredients were good quality, service was fine, and we considered it quite reasonably priced.

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