Another Belltown hot spot: This one serves West African. Men in Senegal don't cook. Especially not men from prominent families. But when Jacques Sarr was about to go off to Paris to study dentistry at the age of 18, his mother secretly began teaching him when his father wasn't home, so her son could eat his favorite foods while abroad. Afrikando
2904 First, 374-9714
lunch and dinner daily
MC, V Twenty years later, Jacques has opened a restaurant, Afrikando, giving Seattle its first port of entry into Senegalese and other types of West African cooking. Tucked into one of Belltown's new pastel buildings, the ground-floor storefront is swathed in elaborate Senegalese fabrics, deep colors, imported masks, and salsa music. (Jacques says Senegal plays the best salsa in the world.) Good luck dolls in traditional dress stand sentry at the kitchen window and remind Jacques of family members back home. The man himself—elegant and unmistakable—is everywhere: He will burst into the blues while cooking, saunter out from the kitchen to ask you how your meal is going, and, during lulls, sit down on the couch in the corner to watch a little TV. Since opening in December, Afrikando has gathered a fervent following entirely by word of mouth. On one night a large group of Peace Corps volunteers was holding a dinner party, while a major local athlete dined with a friend. Jacques and his wife, Sarah, won't name names, but admit that Afrikando's regulars include "lots of nice people who represent the Seattle community," including former Mayor Norm Rice and his family. The first dish Jacques' mother taught him to make washis childhood favorite, thiebu djen, a stewed whitefish eaten throughout Senegal for lunch. In Afrikando's version ($12.95), basmati rice and a tiny piece of halibut steak are stewed in a fragrant, salty tomato sauce and served alongside eggplant, carrots, cassava, and cabbage. The sauce tasted like a cross between a cioppino and a puttanesca sauce, and I wished for more of it, as the fish was overcooked. But then I encountered the halibut's "stuffing"—a paste of fresh parsley and chiles. Ferny and peppery, it resembled pesto in appearance and waved a magic wand over the dry halibut, while pleasantly tickling the upper sinuses. For that paste alone I'd turn thiebu djeninto my national dish as well. The other fish entr饬 boulette, features fish balls made of salmon and halibut ($13.95). The spongy balls made me think of gefilte fish, but with a chewy brown crust. Disappointingly, only two palm-sized balls arrived alongside a hefty portion of jasmine rice and root vegetables. Jacques says that when people ask him to describe Senegalese cooking, he thinks of it "in terms of delicious rices, complex sauces that aren't heavy." Tomato, onion, garlic, and peppers are commonly used, as is Senegal's primary crop, peanuts, which are featured prominently in mafe ($8.95). A dish of Malinese origin, it's a stunningly simple combination of jasmine rice, sweet potato, carrots, and yam doused with a peanut sauce that's been kicked up with onion, garlic, and haba� pepper. Justifiably the restaurant's most popular dish, the mafe could be turned into an even more appealing choice if a meat option were offered. I found myself importing a piece of baked chicken from my tablemate's yassa au poulet ($11.95), a half-chicken stuffed and baked with a tangy onion-mustard sauce that is compelling despite being aggressively mustardy. My friend reported that while the white meat was dry, the dark underside was fork-tender. The same onion-mustard sauce also blankets the couscous that accompanies both the beef brochette ($13.95) and the debe, grilled lamb ($13.95). Again, the meats were too chewy—but still tasty, marinated as they had been in Jacques' "special sauce," a mix of peppers, salt, onion, and ginger. I especially liked the way that the green olives and onions from the sauce meshed with the gaminess of the more tender lamb. On one occasion the waitress brought us a small bowl of red haba� paste—"Jacques' sauce from hell"—to touch up the food. I applied it to fish, lamb, and rice, and found the smoky heat—more sensation than taste—very agreeable. Use it sparingly. Jacques says he developed the sauce as a substitute for the Senegalese practice of daubing sliced fresh peppers on food. "People here always try to eat the peppers. That can be dangerous." The appetizer selection includes a soup of the day ($2.95), a salad of field greens ($5.95; delicious but overdressed), and akra, airy fritters that are served with a tomato-shrimp sauce ($4.95). Only three come to a plate, so be prepared to argue for the lion's share of these greaseless puffs, which are miraculously transmogrified black-eyed peas that have been pounded into flour, shaped into oblong balls, and then deep-fried. A street food in Senegal, akra are Nigerian in origin: Jacques loved them so much as a kid that he would regularly disobey his mother to buy them from vendors—one of whom eventually gave him this recipe. Because Afrikando's focus is on the food, no alcohol is served; large groups can apply for a banquet license and bring their own. This lack is made up for by the exotic homemade juice selection ($2.50). The red bissap is steeped from hibiscus flowers and tastes like a cross between cranberry and grape. The dark tamarind juice reminded me of raisins. The bracing ginger juice, flavored with pineapple and vanilla sugar, will leave you feeling invigorated. You won't have room for dessert, but every effort should be made to try a bite of mango tart or a spoonful of thiakry. The first is made in the same manner as a classic apple tart tatin—in a pan, then flipped over ($4.95). The latter is a thick pudding of couscous, fruit, sour cream, yogurt, and vanilla sauce, typically eaten as a snack or for breakfast in Senegal. It's a rich, creamy mouthful that's as delicious as it sounds unlikely.