Restaurant review: West African restaurant Afrikando Afrikando is a friendly, idiosyncratic spot where charismatic host, Jacques Sarr, displays the home-cooking of his native Senegal, with feastlike entrees showcasing meat, fish or vegetables on a foundation of rice or steamed couscous. 5903 Rainier Ave. S. (Hillman City) Seattle; review by Providence Cicero.
The sign in the window says the restaurant opens at 11 a.m. but it was closer to noon one day when Jacques Sarr unlocked the pretty glass-paned front door of Afrikando Afrikando. He emerged in a flowing navy and white kaftan with a matching kufi on his head, to plant a sandwich board at the curb, indicating his restaurant was ready for customers.
Well, not quite. While we considered the menu, Sarr finished polishing the glass-topped tables with squirt bottle and paper towels. Then he companionably pulled up a chair to discuss what we’d like to eat.
Sarr is a perfectionist, we would come to find out, and a charismatic host with a talent for interpreting the traditional home-cooking of his native Senegal. The original Afrikando had an eight-year run in Belltown before closing in 2005.
Sarr spent the intervening years traveling, but he’s back with a Senegalese sequel, this time in Hillman City. The cozy, colorful, corner restaurant is a family affair, with Sarr in the kitchen and his elegant wife, Adga, out front. Their two youngsters try to stay out of their parents’ way, but they have inherited the family flair for hospitality; not yet preschoolers, they can already charm a room.
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The clientele is an ethnically diverse cross-section of the neighborhood: a mix of families, couples and, one night, a French-speaking party of eight that had Sarr snapping pictures of them by the end of the meal.
The menu is somewhat fluid; consider the printed sheet a departure point. One day tilapia was substituted for halibut, another day salmon, because “there’s only frozen halibut right now.” At these modest prices, finding halibut on the menu anytime would be lucky.
Only two of four appetizers were available one night, and only one dessert, a vanilla-flavored yogurt and sour-cream pudding called Thiakry (cha-kry). Chunky with guava and pineapple chunks and thickened with couscous, it was nonetheless light and refreshing. I could have eaten a quart.
Start with a sweetly dressed, cashew-flecked green salad or crackling planks of fried plantain, sprinkled with mango salsa and served with a dab of house-made habañero sauce.
This potent condiment skillfully melds fire and flavor and puts pizazz in more than a few dishes, including baguette sandwiches at lunch and the vivid tomato sauce ladled over dense, doughy black-eyed-pea fritters paired with shrimp.
Habañero sauce gives a charge to Thiebu Djen (cheb-oo-jen), described on the menu as the Senegalese national dish and worthy of the distinction. It featured a headless but otherwise intact tilapia, plus carrot, cassava, cabbage and eggplant atop jollof rice, all of it ruddy from simmering in the tangy, searing red sauce.
Entrees of meat, chicken and fish are built on a foundation of rice or steamed couscous, and include some sort of vegetable. Carrot and cassava turned up in Mafé (ma-fay), providing, along with jasmine rice, a neutral canvas for a thick, chili-spiked peanut sauce that’s powerful and nuanced.
Debe (deebee) showcased four medium-rare lamb rib chops, as good as many served in a fancier joint at twice the price. Their dense bed of couscous wore a pale, briny onion sauce, sharp with mustard and studded with green olives.
Entrees are imposing and substantial when served individually. But four entrees, combined in the traditional manner on one large platter at the server’s suggestion, made for stunningly opulent tableau. It mitigated the fact that we had waited an hour and a half for it to arrive.
“He was unhappy with one of the sauces and had to do it over,” the waitress explained. She apologized again as she cleared the table, stacking plates on the decimated tray and hoisting it all smoothly atop her head to carry it back to the kitchen.
As far we were concerned, our meal was worth the wait. Other customers were more disgruntled. The idiosyncrasies of Afrikando may require a forbearance; still I urge you to give it a try. You may enter feeling like a stranger in a strange land, but you’re apt to leave full and feeling like one of the family.
Providence Cicero: email@example.com