Remember the fairy tale where the hard-working farmer thinks his homemaker wife is lazy until they switch jobs for a day, and he learns firsthand how hard her life is? In that same spirit, this editor spent a week in the shoes of his food critics.
It sounds like a dream job, but now I'm thankful it was only a weeklong gig. Outgoing writer Jon Kauffman and his successor, John Birdsall, are flavor-discerning machines, able to pinpoint the tiniest hint of pomegranate in a complex reduction sauce. Me? I'm the guy from Sideways who says, "Tastes pretty good to me!" And if that weren't enough of a challenge, Kauffman assigned me the simple and familiar task of reviewing ... a Senegalese restaurant!?
The menu at Taxi Brousse that's "bush taxi," those funky and hazardous minibuses that shuttle Africans and their livestock about should be familiar to San Francisco hipsters. The new Albany joint is the fourth spinoff of the cozy, hopping Mission District restaurant Bissap Baobab, where unoccupied tables are hard to come by on weekends, and late-night dinners evolve into raucous DJ sets and live music on Sundays Spearhead frontman Michael Franti even recorded an album there.
A subset of the Baobab menu has traversed the bay without incident, but unoccupied tables, sadly, are so far the norm at Taxi Brousse, which opened in late May/early June. At first, a server told us, it served both lunch and dinner, but lunch proved such a bust that the restaurant promptly went dinner-only. On Solano Avenue a few blocks away, business might've been brisker, but this is a lose-lose location, a onetime KFC according to a friend born and raised in Berkeley on a strip of San Pablo Avenue with minimal foot traffic. During my visits on successive Thursday evenings, the restaurant seated a grand total of four tables, two of them ours. No wonder the previous place, Mambo Kabob House, lasted less than a year.
Mambo, however, never shook the KFC vibe its owners kept the fast-food booths, and a set of Budweiser "Great Kings of Africa" posters hardly made it more intimate. Taxi Brousse has done substantially more to invite lingering, ripping out the tacky tables and lining the plate-glass windows with cushioned wooden benches. Said windows, and the fluorescent ceiling panels, are draped in African fabrics, a colorful filter for the early evening sun. Bamboo and woven mats line floors, ceilings, and the counter base. Until it gets dark, and the fearsome fluorescents flicker, it feels like an oasis from the harshness of the avenue. And the room's open central space beckoned our youngsters to frolic to West African music from the sound system.
Indeed, Taxi Brousse was great with the kids. Our four-year-old scoffed, irrationally, at the aloko, perfectly fried plantains that had caramelized, lightly crispy exteriors and didn't gloop into one big carbohydrate mass like those we recently ordered from a popular Oakland Caribbean joint. Before long, a cook appeared unsolicited with a plate of thin, wedge-shaped fries for our children the fries weren't on the menu, but they should've been, and my wife and I immediately began pilfering. When our eighteen-month-old went wild for the tangy tamarind-yogurt dipping sauce that accompanied the plantains, our server brought her a little bowl, gratis. That got slurped up fast, and the server brought more. And more. Four free servings in all. Happy baby; happy daddy!
The badgets we call them that also were mad for the juices: hibiscus, tamarind, and fresh ginger. The deep-red hibiscus brew made from flower petals was the prettiest, but Nikko proclaimed the tamarind the best, and we adults had to agree. Most intriguing, however, was the ginger, which went down like a refreshing lemonade that returned to nip at our throat several seconds later.
The pastelles, another appetizer, are essentially empanadas, pastries stuffed with various fillings and deep-fried. Both marinated tuna and beef versions were hearty but unglamorous, relying for their punch on the spicy tomato sauce topping the shell.
Far more impressive were the main dishes, which you can order with various headliners, and come with either couscous or twin scoops of rice. Yassa, a dish from Casamance, Senegal, features chicken or fish with grilled onions in a sauce of lemon, garlic, and mustard, an enticing tangy-sour combo greatly intensified by the onions I attempted one per forkful. The chicken version included chunks of yuca, a superstarchy tuber that tastes like whatever it's stewed in. After all those plantains, the yuca seemed a bit yucky, but the sauce managed to redeem it. The chicken a leg and thigh was tender enough to tease apart with a fork, and we cleared that plate of all but the bones.
The favorite from my first visit was the dibi, from Dakar, consisting of marinated chicken, lamb, shrimp, or fish in onion sauce. I couldn't divine exactly what that tilapia was marinated in; I'll simply say it disappeared fast, as did the lamb version on a second visit. The lamb was a bit overdone, but its flavor was rich and intense, and minor arguments broke out over the last piece. The couscous had the perfect texture, but little flavor, while a touch of mint on the lightly dressed salad that came along with it gave it a certain something. The plate came with gasp! more plantains.
Vegetarians have two possibilities: mafe with tofu, or gombo saff. Mafe consists of vegetables bell peppers, cabbage, carrots, etc., in a rich peanut sauce. We got the chicken instead of tofu, again perfectly cooked. The menu describes gombo saff as a spicy vegetarian stew of spinach and okra. I'm not an okra fan, but the stew was far better than I expected. My comrades were a little put off by its acidic tang, but I am a lemon fan, and it complemented the spinach, especially with the rice as a balancing starch.
Nobody had much love for a dish called tchou. The sauce wasn't bad, a slightly sweet and pungent mix of tomato, garlic, red pepper, and marinated onions, which gave it tones similar to the yassa. But the seemingly frozen shrimp were exceedingly overcooked chewy, half-dollar-sized disks that mostly remained on the platter.
No room for dessert, but ah, what the hell? The chocolate soufflé was the hit here, a rich, flourless cake topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream striped with chocolate syrup. Less impressive was a banana flambé rather too sweet and served without fire, causing several dinner guests to pout. Thiakry, a Senegalese dessert of yogurt with vanilla, nutmeg, raisins, and couscous, wasn't as interesting as it sounded couscous in yogurt, I must say, is a less than desirable texture.
Still, it's a pity Taxi Brousse didn't stop at a better East Bay location, because the overall quality of its food and the friendliness of its service far exceed the atmosphere. Despite the owners' efforts to beautify the place, here's a cuisine that deserves a loyal clientele stuck in a space that doesn't. Perhaps the restaurant's spankin'-new beer and wine license will help us forget that dim fluorescent bulb that keeps flickering high above our table.
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