From Williamsbridge down on to 138th Street, the Bronx is flush with West African food. You can eat fufu in the shadow of the Paradise Theater at the lauded Papaye, but the most consistently tasty West African food in the borough can be found on a desolate strip of Melrose Avenue, a short walk from Yankee Stadium, at Bate.
Like at nearly every other West African restaurant in the city, the shades are perpetually drawn and the lights are dim, giving off the vibe of a cool parlor where people work off their hangovers. But there is no alcohol here. Just a prayer rug, plenty of goat, and at least one rare herb.
You will find deep bowls of musky sauces with rice and yucca couscous, spicy and sweet ginger juice ($2), and the fiery brilliance of "pepper," a ubiquitous condiment at West African restaurants. Here it comes in three varieties: tomato-based red, dried-fish-based black, and mustard.
Those looking for a crash course on some of West African cooking's more unique elements should place an order for the sweet potato leaf stew ($10), a dish that draws its flavor from a rare herb and the use of an otherwise neglected green. (The latter is said to be a characteristic of the region's cuisine.)
When the dark mess of wilted leaves waxed with palm oil arrives, lower your head towards the table. Take a deep breath and inhale the earthy, slightly fermented-smelling aroma. That smell comes from the Malian herb "fakoye", which I was first introduced to while cooking with Baron Ambrosia and Assetou Sy, the executive director of the Malian Cultural Center.
Tasting Bate's sweet potato leaf stew again this past week, I realized it was the very flavor that I had always described when talking about the dish. Only this time I was able to locate it, with those unmistakably earthy and musky tones. Fakoye is an herb unlike any other that I've tasted. It's pungent and irrepressible, supercharging the sweet potato leaf's vegetal side.
As for the goat, it's chewy and unabashedly gamey, slightly under seasoned to my taste, but the smoked meat offers a sweeter flavor.
Those disinclined towards musky herbs might want to defer to the Sauce Clare ($10), a thick stew of tomatoes, garden eggs (a green eggplant that you may known from Thai cooking), and onion. There is no hidden funkiness here, and the only surprise comes by way of submerged chunks of goat. The flavor is rich, hearty from the garden eggs, and silky, with a bright sweetness from the tomatoes and a booster shot of umami from the stockfish. A tableside spike of "pepper"—we recommend the fishy black one for this dish—makes the most of the dish.
There are more dishes here worth savoring, but if you're with a friend, a meal consisting of these two dishes is one of the best introductions to Guinean food that Bate has to offer. In their flavors and composition, they paint a broad stroke: an herb not likely seen outside the West African kitchen (one that you will not find in today's fancy kitchens), stockfish, unique greens, and yet another take on tomato sauce. You will leave happy, if a little stuffed.
860 Melrose Avenue, The Bronx, NY 10451 (map) 718-401-2283
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