Le Grand Dakar brings the spirit of the Sahel to an ordinary, brownstone-heavy block in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. The restaurant exudes warmth, from the tan and blond wood used throughout the dining area to the photos of smiling schoolchildren in uniforms lining the walls to the gorgeous, all-Senegalese waitstaff to the world jazz playing on the stereo.
Two couples nearby discussed having seen Pierre Thiam, the owner and head chef, on television. "You're not from Long Island, right?" their server asked. They shook their heads and mentioned Fort Greene. "If you were from Long Island, this might be your only shot. But you can keep coming back. You can try everything on the menu."
Sound advice. We debated the potential merits of salmon cassava croquettes ($9) but ultimately chose accara ($8), black-eyed pea fritters. These wonderfully light oblongs of peppery fried dough were served with what our waitress called "spicy hot sauce." She wasn't kiddingm&mdashthe sauce packs an incredible wallop.
Our other appetizer, suya ($10), peanut-crusted beef served satay-style, had a similar in-your-face flavor. The beef was as chewy as jerky, with a kick from raw onions and pepper. We eagerly gobbled the cooling mixed greens, topped with tamarind dressing, and sipped our glass of bissap ($3), maroon-purple and tart-sweet sorrel juice.
Yassa chicken ($14) featured a big, messy mound of breast and thigh, smothered in an assertive but not cloying lime-and-onion confit. This tropical take on the familiar chicken with gravy reinforced the diversity of the region's dishes. As people came and went, they left behind their recipes, so the dishes on offer here show French and Portuguese inflections, among others. The caldou ($14) consisted of steamed tilapia cooked in a thin broth of tomato, okra, lime, and salt. The delicate flavor of the fish got smothered beneath a pile of salt—an unfortunate misstep in an otherwise good meal.
Tell a prospective paramour that you'd like to spend the evening at what amounts to a cultural center, and said paramour will likely tell you to have a good time and perhaps lose his number along the way. But perhaps a restaurant is a bit easier to take. Le Grand Dakar seeks to educate its diners. The menu, for example, lists each dish's provenance. While most come from Senegal, a fair amount originated elsewhere in West Africa.
Vegetarians will be delighted by such options as fried plantains called aloco ($7) from Côte d'Ivoire and vegan mafe ($12), a peanut-and-vegetable stew from Mali. On Sundays there's a jazz brunch. On Friday nights Salieu Suso plays the kora, a Gambian harp, so rhythmically that tables often get pushed aside to make room for dancing.
Africa tends to be associated, monolithically and unfortunately, with scarcity; Chef Thiam and his restaurant want to showcase the abundance and tastiness of a particular group of countries. Pedagogy, even tastefully prepared, won't please everyone. Le Grand Dakar is best for: a date with a sense of adventure.