There's a two-year-old in all of us who treats a warning as an invitation. "Watch out: This sauce is very, very spicy," cautioned our server, setting down a small bowl filled with a thick red paste. It sat on our table for a long time before I gave in to my curiosity and tried a minuscule dab. Five minutes and two glasses of water later, I felt comfortable putting food in my mouth again. My tablemates, who all assumed they were tougher than I, were still blowing their noses and crying.
Passersby must have thought that Keur Samba was hosting a wake. Or, given the company I was keeping, a support group for laid-off dot-com workers. Now that the economy has tanked, more of my friends are free for lunch.
It was sunny enough outside to light up the window table where we sat. The rest of the restaurant was kept unlit, muting the brightly colored banquette cushions along one wall and the rose-hued mural of a desert nomad across the way. The tuneful rhythms of West African music burbled throughout the room. Through a door at the back I could see a woman in a vivid green kente-cloth dress and matching headdress moving deliberately around the kitchen. Somehow the dimness, more than the decorations, made the space feel truly African.
Keur Samba, located at 49th and Telegraph in the Temescal district, specializes in "Senegambian" food. Senegal is located on the tip of the western hump of the African continent, with Gambia tucked inside, snaking along the Gambia River. While Senegal was colonized by the French and Gambia by the British, the populations of the two countries are closely interwoven ethnically and culturally.
Senegambian cuisine is a meeting point between North African food and sub-Saharan African cuisine, Jessica Harris writes in The Africa Cookbook. Grilled lamb dishes, couscous, and olives point to the north, while palm oil, stews, and subtropical vegetables are more common in southern cuisines. And since many of the region's major cities are located on the coast, seafood shows up in many of the classic dishes, some of which are on Keur Samba's menu.
J.C. Loum opened Keur Samba in January 2001; both he and the manager, his cousin Amara Drame, come from Dakar. This is their first restaurant in the US, and they claim it is the only West African restaurant in Oakland. Keur Samba means "Samba House"; Samba is their grandfather's name.
I could count on my two hands the number of times I've eaten West African food prepared by West African cooks, but Keur Samba's is close to the real deal. It certainly hasn't been California-ized: the cooks aren't using lean cuts of Niman Ranch lamb; they're cooking chunks of shoulder and shank on the bone, with gristle and fat intact. They're not layering flavors and textures; they're stewing vegetables and spices together until everything melds. And most of the dishes, when you're finished eating them, leave a thin slick of red palm oil on the plate. Is everything "authentic"? I don't doubt it. Was it to my taste? Not always.
Between my two visits, I tried all three appetizers. The pastell, halfway between Central American pasteles and Chinese fried wontons, were crispy half-moons of thin dough enclosing peppery ground catfish. Four bouletts, small tightly formed balls of ground fish mixed with flour and spices, garnished a large iceberg lettuce salad coated in a tart, mustardy dressing. As for the plantain -- who doesn't love plantain? Unable to wait until they cooled, we burned our mouths on the thick, ripe chunks of it, deep-fried until the edges formed a brown crust and the flesh inside melted. All three appetizers came with a garlicky, chunky sauce made with tomatoes, chiles, and onions. I didn't enjoy it with the plantains, but its tart, peppery brightness went well with the pastell and boulett, masking some of their pungent fishiness.
Keur Samba's menu lists about ten entrées, most accompanied by rice, the national starch of Senegal (some regions eat wheat or millet couscous as well). Since many of the entrées offer a choice of meats, it appears that most of the meats are stewed separately and then reheated with the chosen sauce to order. The downside is that the meats don't fully absorb the taste of the sauce and vice versa. And be warned: The chicken, a whole leg, comes out tough and overboiled.
The upside is that vegetarians have the option of having four of those dishes -- the Yassa, the Mafe, the Thiou, and the Thiou Curry -- with extra vegetables instead of meat. My veggie friends tried the Thiou and the Yassa. Both received huge hunks of tender braised cabbage, a couple of cooked carrots, and a large yucca, white and starchy underneath the sauce. Since the meat flavors never made their way into the sauces anyway, the vegetarian versions weren't substantially different from what we omnivores ordered.
Smaller amounts of that trio of vegetables make it into almost all the dishes on the menu. In the best-known sub-Saharan African dish, Mafe, they accompanied huge chunks of lamb coated with a thick, oily peanut-tomato sauce with little spice or acid to cut its bombastic richness. Bright, tomatoey Vegetable Thiou tasted like a variation on the tomato-onion sauce that came with the appetizers. All the vegetables melted into one big monomush in another Thiou, Thiou Curry, a gingery, Madras-curry-flavored dish that is considered "Caribbean-style" in Senegal.
We also tried two of the Senegalese national dishes: Cheebu Jen and Chicken Yassa. Chicken Yassa is a powerfully mustardy, tart sauce sweetened with a mess of sautéed onions and punched up -- as if it needs punching up -- with green olives. In the Cheebu Jen, a filet of salmon is braised with vegetables in a spicy broth reddened by chiles, palm oil, and tomatoes. The broth is then combined with tomato paste to cook tiny grains of broken rice.
When the food's not stellar, it's still relatively inexpensive. We spent about $24 per person for two courses and drinks at dinner. At lunch, every entrée on the menu costs a whopping $6.95, and you get a free soft drink to boot. My companions and I skipped the sodas in favor of the African drinks, all $2.95. Not surprisingly, they tasted just like Afro-Caribbean specialties. Tamarine was the tartest tamarind agua fresca I've ever had, a welcome change from those I've tried at Latin American restaurants. And ginger beer was ginger beer: sugary, fragrant, and piquant. Diners can order one of several grain beers on tap or choose from a short wine list that includes Moroccan and Tunisian wines, whose character resembles the jammy, bright vintages from Chile.
What Keur Samba does best is make you feel welcome -- the friendly, intimate welcome that you get from small family-owned restaurants. Most of this place's charm comes from one source: the server, a tall Mary J. Blige look-alike with an effortless glamour. All she had to do to keep us happy was sweep by our table and smile, which she did frequently. She laughed when my bleary-eyed friends and I mentioned how hot the hot sauce was. "There's a guy who comes in," she told us. "The first time he ate here he mixed it up with his rice -- he didn't know what it was -- and he cried and cried. Now I warn everyone, 'It's spicy, it's spicy.'"
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