Brighter, Fresher West African in the Bronx at Patina African Restaurant


[Photograph: Chris Crowley]

There is a sea of West African restaurants in the Bronx, made up of places with exotic-sounding names like Bargar, Mabintou Dream, and Sankofa, that are shadowy and often, sadly, seemingly indistinguishable.

You can reliably find groundnut (peanut) or okra soup with filling starches at any of them, but if you want to advance past soups and stews on these menus, you're mostly out of luck. That's why I was so happy to stumble across Patina African Restaurant, probably the best new African restaurant I've found in the borough. It's the kind of place where the owner's nephew, a toddler with a great affection for rice and toy cars, will ask to join you for lunch, or where customers will tease, "you put jollof rice, my favorite, with porridge? Where do they do that?"

One bite of Patina's Spinach Stew ($10), "cooked with just stock fish and fish," and I was instantly struck by the compelling union of spicy, smoky, and fishy flavors. The leaves were soft but not mushy and seasoned just right, demonstrating a more sophisticated grasp on flavors than you'll find elsewhere. The decorative bowls are a refreshing change-up from the chunky, cheap dinnerware other Bronx African restaurants use. Patina takes pride in its food, and it shows.

But let's move past stewy plates of greens. I was really visiting Patina's for a rare menu item: Banga ("palm nut") Soup ($10), which I've yet to find elsewhere in the Bronx, though you'll see variations on the theme if you hunt around.

The soup is made with the fruit of the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis). At Patina, it is prepared with a concentrate (or "cream"), palm oil, stock fish, and "a little tomato." Chef Tina didn't explain much beyond that, though chilies also make their presence known.

It's delicious, funky from its fish base and sweet from tomatoes, perked up by the vivid heat of habaneros. The eponymous palm fruit has the same musky flavor of palm oil, but it's cleaner, richer, and brighter.

Patina stands apart from the borough's nondescript African restaurants, for its food and the pride it takes in running its business. We'll be back for more.