Senegal is an especially fecund example of West Africa's culinary heritage, employing geographic location (the westernmost tip of the African continent), raw materials (seafood, plantains, peanuts, palm oil, lemons, and rice), and a myriad of influences (Muslim since the 11th century with a soupçon of French and Portuguese tossed in). Its uniquely inclusive temperament has created a melting-pot cuisine in which a variety of disparate flavors are rendered together to create a unique whole. Perhaps as a consequence, many of the dishes served at Lam Toro, a new Senegalese restaurant tucked away in Oakland's Koreatown, aren't for everyone. The flavors are intense; ingredients are cooked slowly to bring out their richest, most heightened flavors. Fish has the essential concentration of a bouillon cube, lamb is on the gamy side, salt is a liberal presence, and herbs and spices are combined and used for maximum impact. But the cuisine has its subtler shades as well, and the adventurous and the uninitiated alike will find a wide array of flavors to suit them at this friendly neighborhood hangout.
The setting, a spare, smallish storefront with a just-opened air of controlled confusion, is decorated here and there with African masks, woven baskets, colorful paintings, and an evocative wall-sized mural of a tropical beach with swaying palm trees. The sparse decor is more than supplemented, though, by the establishment's absolutely convivial ambiance. The mood is set by the house's affable, relaxed, spectacularly dreadlocked host-waiter, who can be heard conversing throughout the evening in French, English, and Wolof, Senegal's primary dialect. In addition to supervising everyone's meals with unruffled repose, he oversees the dining room's musical selections, makes the occasional supermarket run, and radiates an overall sense of restorative good cheer. As a result of these divided duties, service can be erratic, especially when the restaurant fills up with families, neighbors, and tables of celebrants. But if you go along with the relaxed, laissez-faire mood of the place, you'll find the experience singularly refreshing.
Me, I'd had a rough week and was perfectly content to sit back, sip at my bissap cooler, and let things happen. The cooler, like every other drink on the menu, is made on the premises and is concocted of ice, sweetener, and the vitamin-rich calyces of the hibiscus flower, and is thoroughly soothing to boot. Even better is a tall, revivifying glass of fresh ginger juice, or the Lam-Toro Cocktail, which combines the bissap and the ginger with pureed mango into a thick, luscious aperitif. (The more standard soft drinks and a half-dozen varieties of beer are available as well.)
To start off our meal, we ordered pastelles, freshly baked pastries filled with smoked, salted fish paste. The highly seasoned flavor of the fish contrasted sharply with the flaky pastry, and although I found the dish stridently salty at first encounter, I devoured every bite on my next visit. The fried plantains, though fresh and greaseless, were thoroughly bland until dipped into their accompanying tamarind-mustard sauce, a tangy delight I took to sampling by the spoonful. A big, bountiful salad of bright greens, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, and hard-boiled egg cleansed the palate for the next course.
Dibi, lamb grilled and served with greens and rice or couscous, had the robust, flavorsome gaminess of mutton and a pleasantly smoky aftertaste. Suppa Kandja is one of Senegal's signature dishes, in which diced lamb is fried in palm oil with smoked, salted fish and then simmered with herbs, okra, and onions in an oil-based broth. Lam Toro's version was gamy and fishy, an oleaginous stew rife with bones, shells, and overcooked meat — a specialty worth avoiding. Poulet à la Picarde was more of the same, with half a scrawny chicken substituted for the lamb. But the Chicken Yassa employs Senegal's age-old marinating traditions to good advantage, steeping the bird in a tart lemon-based marinade and then simmering it slowly with onion and mustard. The result is tender and tasty.
On the Senegalese coastline, whole fish are often basted with herbs and palm oil and grilled over hot coals, and at Lam Toro we enjoyed such a presentation. Our tilapia was served with plenty of crackling skin and meaty flesh fragrant with smoke and sea breeze. Although tackling the skeletal remains was problematic, it was worth it. The fish came with two sauces, the dreamy tamarind variety and a slow-roasted onion sauce as sweet and supple as a good soupe a l'ognion. Each entree was also accompanied by a choice of (flavor-free) couscous or white rice, which had a weird smoky taste on our first visit ("I feel like I just smoked a cigarette," reported one diner) but was a perfectly placid contrast to the entrées on our second.
Although banana beignets and thiakry, the classic Senegalese couscous pudding, are listed among the dessert options, neither was available on either of our two visits. (We missed out on Thiebu Djeun, the national dish of Senegal, too.) But the teranga (Wolof for "hospitality") was a yummy meal-closer: a yogurt-sweet cream concoction studded with chunks of peach, pineapple, and grape.
Mamadou and Michelle Dieng, the restaurant's proprietors, are from the Senegalese village of Lam Toro, where, says Mamadou, "everybody cooks; it's part of our life." They're looking into opening another location to handle their devoted and growing clientele, but for now "we want to make our customers happy, all of them." To that end, diners are encouraged to express their desires (and dietary restrictions) to the waitstaff and kitchen. "We want to make sure that everyone who comes in the door can enjoy our food, vegetarian, vegan, French, African, anyone. That is our concept." Teranga, indeed.
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