“Gigot mutton,” lamb shanks, topped with mustardy vegetables, are crusty and tender.
Early dispatches from La Savane suggested it wasn’t easy to access its exotic charms if you didn’t speak French, given the lack of menus. “Love it,” said one review. “Made me feel like I was back in Abidjan.” That made it even more enticing when a friend suggested we go. She was motivated by that week’s enthusiasm in the New Yorker. Opened by a couple of taxi drivers, one from the Ivory Coast and the other Senegalese, the notice reported.
A small village on the African savannah is painted on the wall.
I consulted Robert Sietsema, the grand sage of edible cheap and the unfamiliar -- he’d scouted it already, of course. I learned it would be a likeable mix of African cuisines I’d never tasted. I also looked forward to a rare chance to speak my limited French with that uvular “R” that sometimes makes even the French think I’m more fluent than I am.
Our server, Carole it says on the check, is infinitely patient and delivers each dish with a side.
We entered through the canvas chill-guard, saying hello to a woman waiting inside with a child in a stroller. The room seemed small and shadowed with a counter at the far end, murals of African villages on the walls, strings of Christmas lights, and the gurgle of a fountain. A waitress led us to a table covered with patterned paper. Given the glow cast by the New Yorker, I was not surprised to see a scattering of white faces chowing down in a constant to-and-fro of locals and Africans, many of whom seemed not surprised at all to run into each other.
“Poisson Grille Simple” is a lot of deliciously crusty and greasy tilapia. Or so we assume.
“They don’t have menus,” I remind my friend. “Do you have menus?” my friend asks a waitress who has sauntered over at our wave. She goes off and returns with menus in plastic folders, three pages of not-very-helpful listings with minimal translations and items repeated at various prices. On the first page, everything is called a sauce. A little French does help. Sauce arachide (peanut). Sauce poisson fume (Fraiche fish sauce). Sauce Claire Poulet (chicken).
The foutou falls apart when we try to dip it, but the peanut “sauce” with anonymous meat in it is tasty.
Confounded by the repetitions, we settle on the most familiar. Gigot. Lamb. “How would they do it?” Tim asks. The response is vague. Well, never mind. “Whatever, we’ll have the lamb.” Di bi (Poulet) is Chicken. Plantains. I would like to order tête de gigot. Head cheese is an adventure. From the frowns and eye rollings of my pals, I decide to skip it. But we all agree we must have attiéké and foutou, whatever they are, and hot sauce -- the musts recommended by early experts.
I can’t get my pals to share the bissap – hibiscus mixed with pineapple – because it’s so sweet.
Feeling a little under the weather, Harriette has ordered tea -- ginger tea in a cup as big as a soup bowl, warming and apparently a natural restorative. Instantly fortified, she’s ready to try anything. We all ask for water: our usual, New York water. A single bottle of Poland Spring arrives. I remember to order bissap -- it comes in a plastic bottle -- an intense and sweet cranberry-hued blend of hibiscus blossoms and pineapple juice. I offer to share. Everyone who tries a sip rejects it as too sweet. I dilute it with ice and take a few sips now and then.
Hacked chicken chunks are half edible: The dark meat is juicy, the breast very dry.
The foutou tastes like raw cake batter, except not that good. You’re supposed to break off a blob and dip it into the sauce, only it’s too soft to hang on to. But the suggested peanut stew with unidentifiable meat floating on top is full of flavor. I’m eating it with a spoon and spilling some on the attiéké and foutou, whatever they are, and hot sauce -- the musts recommended by early experts.
Grated, fermented cassava is so full of flavor, it scarcely needs a bouillon cube crumbled into it.
That’s grated, fermented cassava pulp that looks like couscous, a marvelous Ivory Coast side. It comes piled with sweet caramelized onion and one foil-wrapped Maggi bouillon cube nestled at the edge. No instructions. Crumble it and use like salt, the New Yorker review said, but the grain is so full of flavor it doesn’t need any help.
Luscious cuts of plaintain -- soft and sweet – could be dessert.
Most everything comes topped with a slurry of onion, tomato and green peppers in a mustardy sauce. The lamb shanks are a bit scrawny (could they be goat?) but a portion delivers two -- caramelized and mostly tender. “Poisson Grille Simple” is crispy, greasy and delicious, too. It looks like tilapia. Odd chunks of chicken are fried -- the dark meat salty and edible, the breast stringy and dry. Soft and sweet chunks of plantain are piled high on a plate. Did they come free with the fish? Maybe, they are not on the bill.
La Savane was a secret for homesick West Africans but a measured rave in the New Yorker ended that.
It reads like nothing much as I scan the bill – the generous $9 bowl of meaty peanut sauce, entrees $13 and $15, the rejected $3 foutou, ginger tea $1 -- $18.50 per person with tip. We’re full, quite pleased with the welcome in this foreign dinette. We ask about dessert, then reject the notion. As we wrap up and file past the gurgling fountain to the sidewalk of 116th Street, the place has filled. New Yorker faces. West Africans. Harlem. Not far east is Spanish Harlem, what used to be Puerto Rican. Now, it’s tacos town. You can eat New York, but you can’t necessarily master all its mysteries.
239 West 116th Street between Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevards. 646 490 4644. Open from 8 am to 1 am everyday.
Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.
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