Until a few weeks ago, I couldn't locate Senegal on a map. (It's in West Africa, a wedge-shaped country that juts out into the North Atlantic Ocean just west of Mali.) Like many Seattleites, my experience with African food was confined mainly to Ethiopian, Eritrean, and "pan-African" places (like the Pan Africa Market in Pike Place Market and Mesob in the Central District).
If East Africa's buttery stews and spongy injera bread—ancestors of the American South's creole cuisine—are analogous to comfort foods like gumbo and pilau, Senegalese food is like haute cuisine, a quality that stems in large part from the country's long occupation by France, which began in 1659. Although Senegal has been independent for nearly half a century, the French influence is still evident in both its dual national languages (Wolof and French) and its food.
In its previous incarnation, Afrikando Afrikando was merely Afrikando singular, a generic storefront in a bland residential-over-retail development in Belltown. The new location—on an otherwise dodgy corner in the still-evolving neighborhood of Hillman City—isn't especially promising either, but inside is a friendly, two-room hole-in-the-wall with bright African tablecloths, cheerful family photos, and uncommonly good food. It may be the only Senegalese restaurant in Seattle, but I can't imagine a better introduction to this complex, spicy, superdelicious cuisine.
Although most of the ingredients are unassuming (yams, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and cassava make repeat appearances), the care they're prepared with elevates even the humblest dishes. Accara ($4.95), golf-ball-sized cakes of pureed black-eyed peas smothered in a fiery red sauce made of tomatoes, onions, and habanero peppers, reminded me of a more delicate version of hush puppies, the ubiquitous Southern cornmeal fritters. A vegetarian version of mafe ($8.95, $9.95/$12.95 with chicken), a peanut-based stew with large hunks of sweet potatoes, carrots, potatoes, and yams, was simultaneously spicy and subtle, the zing of red pepper tamed by the creamy peanut sauce and a generous heap of buttery jasmine rice.
As much as I loved Afrikando Afrikando's vegetarian options, though, it was the poultry, meat, and fish that made for some of the most memorable meals I've had in Seattle. Thiebu djen ($14.95), a rich stew of tomato sauce (a version of the sauce served with the fritters—a nod to mother sauces, another French tradition), cassava, eggplant, carrots, and cabbage, was served with a huge, flaky halibut steak stuffed with a paste of garlic, hot peppers, and parsley. The neutral fish, cooked medium, was a perfect foil to the aggressively flavored vegetables and spices.
Debe ($14.95), billed on the menu as "grilled lamb with our own special blend of spices," consisted of three diminutive lamb chops cooked a perfect medium-rare, served alongside an unusual and irresistible sauce of slow-cooked onions, Dijon mustard, tangy vinegar, and green olives, with mounds of pillowy, butter-enriched couscous. Each chop was topped with a precise, dime-sized dollop of a powerfully hot sauce much like harissa, which our waitress, a young woman in a colorful patterned dress and lacy white headscarf, warned us away from, muttering, "I told the chef to ask if you wanted the hot sauce!" Yes, please—on everything.
The mustard-onion sauce also made an appearance in yassa au poulet ($14.95), a small half-chicken stuffed with a pungent mix of onions, garlic, and chopped green chili peppers, served over rice with pimiento-stuffed olives. The long-marinated chicken—broiled until it was charred on the outside, then cooked slowly in the onion-mustard sauce—was one of the most surprising, extraordinary things I've ever eaten.
The only disappointments—which is to say, the only dishes that I didn't want to take home and marry/bathe in/order 12 more of—were two dishes traditional to Senegal but not to the liking of my American taste buds. The first, soupe kandja ($13.95), contained an ingredient—okra—that most people hate and that I usually love; chopped fine and cooked slowly in palm oil (itself an acquired taste), it was both unctuous and unassertive. The crab claw that the soupe kandja came with was a lovely looking but overcooked afterthought that added nothing to the stew but, probably, cost. The second, a stew called boulette ($14.95) made with fried croquettes of salmon and halibut, was overpoweringly fishy. Although it came with the same tomato-habanero sauce that was incredible in other dishes, the match was off, the strong-flavored croquettes clashing unpleasantly with the somewhat brackish sauce.
If you're in a hurry or paralytically shy, Afrikando Afrikando isn't for you. The service can be somewhat lackadaisical, and meals are interrupted frequently by owner and chef Jacques Saar, a handsome, imposingly tall man in chef's whites and a colorfully patterned tribal hat. And there's no booze (the Saars are Muslim, and the restaurant adjoins a Muslim mini-mart). But the homemade juices ($2.50; we tried, and liked, the tamarind and mango) probably do a better job cooling your tongue after a bite of fiery debe than even a cold lager could.