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The Last Days of Fufu on Eighth Avenue

28 Jun

It was early 2007, around the peak of the real estate boom that had overtaken New York City, when we traveled to Harlem to dine at Florence’s Restaurant.  The restaurant was located on Frederick Douglass Boulevard just a few blocks north of 110th Street. I don’t recall that the trendy moniker SoHa, meaning South Harlem, had yet been awarded to that quickly gentrifying neighborhood, but, as I wrote below, all the signs were there that soon this would be a place that would be awarded a trendy moniker.

Florence’s Restaurant
(R.I.P)

After lengthy and near hysterical deliberations, our disparate group finally agreed to a date. Our choice was a Friday, certainly not ideal for anyone, but the only day all could make it. Rick was saddled with the pick and had to take weekend traffic and restaurant crowds into consideration when choosing the destination. Those considerations eliminated Brooklyn and Staten Island. The Bronx was a possibility, but the Yankees were at home that night. There was always Queens, but Rick wanted a break from that food bounteous borough.  Downtown Manhattan could be risky, so that left Harlem. Rick’s research unveiled a conveniently (convenient to me at least) located African restaurant named Florence’s specializing in home cooking and, as Rick added: “that is if your home is Ghana.”  We expected our full group of six until Friday afternoon when Rick had to suddenly drop out due to a family emergency. Though it was his pick, it was too late to find another destination. We would meet at Florence’s.

What recession?

Walking up Central Park West and past 110th Street when it becomes Frederick Douglass Boulevard, or as it is also known, 8th Avenue, and passing the distinct signs of gentrification; where on every block new apartment buildings are rising and brownstones gutted and ready for renovation; where real estate is now into the multi-millions, there was Florence’s, a tiny and untidy symbol of resistance to change.

When I arrived a few African men were sitting at the Formica-topped tables adorned with cheap plastic table mats decorated with ducklings in bonnets. They were dining on large bowls of stews, using mashed fufu, a yellowish plantain meal formed into a smooth ball, as a utensil and scooping up the stew with it. A television was on to the news and a little boy was laughing and playing with books on the floor of the restaurant near where I was sitting. To capture my attention, the boy began to raise the level of his giggling. The owner, probably the boy’s father, scolded him. The boy went quickly silent.

Fufu

I was alone but given a table for five until a large group of young tourists staying at a nearby hostel entered. I gave up my table and switched to another, smaller table. I sipped a fiery, homemade ginger beer and tried calling Gerry and Zio wondering when they would arrive, but couldn’t get through to either. I was worried that with the group of tourists that Florence’s might run out of food as small, family-run restaurants like these are apt to do. I didn’t know then, but my worries were unfounded.

Zio waddled in soon after, fedora on head, followed by Gerry who announced that Eugene was out due to a work commitment. Mike from Yonkers completed the group and wasting no time, we perused the very informative menu. When we gave the waiter our usual spiel—that we like to sample the traditional favorites, he genially pointed out a number of Ghanian and Ivorian (Ivory Coast) specialties starting with the aforementioned fufu and groundnut (peanut butter stew). With it we had a choice of beef, chicken, fish, goat, or cow foot. Before I could say “goat,” Zio blurted out “cow foot,” his insistent craving for the gelatinous hooves that would accompany our peanut butter stew went without explanation.

Kelewele: peculiarly mouth-watering.

Our waiter also recommended the fried fish served with banku, fermented cassava dough and rolled into balls, the baked fish, an item called kelewele, sliced plantains seasoned with ginger, chilies, and cloves and fried giving it, according to the menu, “a peculiar mouth-watering flavor.” Lastly, we were steered toward a supposedly popular dish of black-eyed peas called “red red.”

The groundnut stew with cowfoot arrived first along with the mound of fufu. I picked up one of the hooves, found it impenetrable and quickly gave up on it, but Zio determinedly found a way to gnaw the clear gristle surrounding bone. Unlike the Africans, I tried to eat the fufu with fork and knife—a big mistake; it was like cutting through rubber. The banku that accompanied the excellent fried fish was a better option, soft and starchy, a nice compliment to the tangy sauce of the fish. The menu said the baked fish was bluefish, but devoid of that fish’s oily, distinctively strong flavor, it was more likely tilapia. Whatever the species, the fish was moist and full of meat and flavor.

“red red”

The last two dishes to arrive were the “red red,” a bowl of black-eyed peas drenched in an oily crimson-colored sauce that was, despite it’s appearance, rather bland, and the kelewele, plantains fried to a crisp, deep brown color and speckled with chilies and ginger, again not as spicy as it appeared. The four of us finished everything and were shocked at the miniscule bill for all the food we consumed. Had the owners of Florence’s not seen the construction that I saw? Did they look at the overpriced menu of the new, upscale Ethiopian restaurant with the fancy wine list across the street? Were they not aware that the immediate world around them was about to drastically change? I could only hope that they did not.

Brunch and dining “al fresco” where Florence’s once stood.

 But of course it did, though not without a serious bump. Construction in Harlem and elsewhere halted temporarily during the financial crises of 2008 and 2009, but the growth resumed in 2010. I ‘m not sure when Florence’s closed, but it couldn’t have been more than a year after our visit. Where Florence’s once was there is now a wildly popular beer garden called Bier International with “al fresco” seating featuring “brunch.”

Cross Bronx Mecca

17 May

B.B. African and American Restaurant
1715 Webster Avenue
Bronx, NY

The B.B. African and American Restaurant was just off the Cross Bronx Expressway, on semi-industrial Webster Avenue, wedged between a Taco Bell and a Puerto Rican Lechonera and across the street from a West African video store. There were no subway stops nearby. No signs of gentrification at all. After the regretful Nomad experience, we were happily in familiar territory. When we noticed that the dim restaurant was lit mainly by the big screen television where European and African soccer was playing; that there were only men inside with the exception of two women in the kitchen, and that there were sandals and prayer mats tucked off to the side of the dining area, we were even more reassured that we were in the right place.

Webster Avenue & the Cross Bronx: Gentrification-proof

 The owner, Mr. B.B., an emigrant of Guinea, was also our host and offered us tea or bottled non-diet drinks. It was apparent that the clientele was predominately Muslim and that no alcohol was served here. So Lipton or overly sweet Mistic-brand drinks were our options. The menu featured the “American” portion first where hamburgers, eggs, sandwiches, even pastas were offered. We skipped past it to the last page where we found the West African choices. Mike from Yonkers, displaying his dubious knowledge of foods African, recited a few items from the menu to see if they were available; his pronunciation of them mystifying Mr. B.B. They were not. But Mr. B.B. assured us that they had everything else. Mike from Yonkers tried again—again he was thwarted. But despite the setbacks, Mr. B.B. said he had fish, tilapia to be exact; he had plenty of goat meat, and he had beef, lamb and chicken, “very good chicken” he added. To make things easier for him and for us, we told him to put together a good representation of his menu; that we had no dietary restrictions.

While we waited very patiently for the parade of dishes to make it to our table, Eugene, savvy cruise boat veteran that he claims to be, gave Zio a few worthless tips for Zio’s upcoming cruise through the Mediterranean and back across the Atlantic. As is usual, the conversation got loud, but didn’t seem to disrupt the African in robe and skull cap who was praying on the mat adjacent to our table.

    A huge platter of peas in a thick, tomato sauce arrived first quickly followed by an equally large plate of crispy fried goat meat surrounded by onions—the small pieces of meat chewy, as goat tends to be, but without its usual heavy gaminess.  Mr. B.B. returned almost immediately with another platter, this one piled with thin lamb chops, also smothered in onions. Knowing we would need more room, our intrepid host added another table for us to accommodate the growing collection of platters. Two bowls of stewed chicken arrived next, the chicken tender and moist floating in a rich, peanut-thickened gravy. Following the chicken were three whole, robust tilapia, ready for our attention. Mike from Yonkers immediately grabbed one and began shredding flesh from bone while Rick advised that he would hold out for the fish cheeks, as they were the most flavorful and tender part of the fish.

Chicken stew in peanut sauce


    Though our combined tables were overflowing, Mr. B.B. forgot the rice and peanut gravy and quickly returned with them. I asked for a hot sauce and he brought a squeeze-top French’s “Original Yellow” mustard bottle. He warned that it wasn’t mustard, but very hot sauce. Ignoring Mike from Yonkers’ petty gripe that the rice was overcooked, I took some and sprinkled the sauce on it. It had a mustard-base, like French’s “Original Yellow” but with about ten times the kick.

    We slowly cleaned the platters while Mr. B.B. told us of his journey from Guinea to Buffalo, New York, and ultimately to the Bronx, where he opened the restaurant in 1997. Though the restaurant seemed busy, he was lamenting the current state of his business; that he could not keep up with inflation by raising prices on the menu because his customers would leave him for the growing number of rival African restaurants that had sprouted in the area. Even a one or two dollar increase on an item and he might lose a customer. So who were we to complain when we got our bill and noticed that the items on the menu, had, in fact, gone up a dollar or two from what was listed. Though we were a couple of dollars over our allotted $20 budget, there were leftovers, a rarity at our gatherings—goat meat Gerry gladly took home for something to gnaw on when his colossal appetite would, in an hour or two, most likely return.

 B.B African and American Restaurant, despite, Mr. B.B.’s worries back in 2006, remains open. In fact, after a recent visit, I noticed that everything about the semi-industrial enclave has remained exactly as it was on our visit except that maybe the constant traffic roar from the nearby Cross Bronx Expressway has gotten even louder.

Gentrified Couscous

10 May

As you will see below, Nomad was the initial pick for Mike from Yonkers and an unfortunate one. The good news is that he learned from his mistake as you will read in future installments.

NOMAD
78 2nd Avenue
East Village


There’s an old cliché in sports that by the end of a player’s first season the rookie is no longer a rookie. Mike from Yonkers has been our “rookie” in terms of experience with the group, but by now, at least a year since his first outing, he also can’t really be considered a rookie. So with that in mind, he was, for the first time, given the opportunity to choose our next destination. We had complete confidence that after observing the previous year’s picks he would understand our loose criteria. That he would find a place close to our $20 limit and one that was below the radar of the major food critics. It wouldn’t hurt if the place he found might also cause a stir by our group’s appearance;  where we would be the minority whether in ethnic origin, skin tone, or the language we speak.

 Mike from Yonkers ’ first choice was a restaurant in Astoria , presumably Greek, called Philoxenia. Our only Greek experience was the unfortunate Uncle George’s that Zio is still living down. Upon further research, however, Mike from Yonkers discovered that Philoxenia was no more. To his credit, he quickly came up with a Plan B: that being Sriprahai, the acclaimed Thai restaurant in Woodside, Queens.  Sriprahai might have been an excellent choice five years ago, but by now it has been crowned by critics everywhere, including the New York Times, as possibly the best Thai restaurant in the region. As a result, Sriprahai no longer fit into our criteria.

 Mike from Yonkers now had to scramble and this time, came up with a restaurant in Brooklyn called  Sweetwater. The first problem with Sweetwater was that it was in Williamsburg and that alone should have set off alarm signals to Mike from Yonkers. With tattoo-clad culinary grads on every corner, the new (nouveau) restaurants of Williamsburg are pretty much the antithesis of what we seek out. That Sweetwater had its own website didn’t help and a quick look at the reviews and menu that included items such as “saffron-tinged rice balls,” and “cornmeal-crusted brook trout,”  immediately eliminated it.

 By now, we realized that Mike from Yonkers was on the wrong track. Hoping to steer him back, Gerry offered guidance reminding him that very few places we’ve been to, if any, have a wine list and that we tend to “favor more ‘gritty’ type places—a place with a little greace (sic).”  

 After those words, Mike from Yonkers was on his own; we could do no more for him. So despite that it had its own glossy website; that it was in the now pricey real estate of the East Village and that it had a wine list; we were resigned to convene at the appropriately-named Nomad.

 Around the corner from East Sixth St and the cluster of restaurants known as Little India, Nomad, which claimed to serve the food of North Africa , was barren when we arrived. Once we were all seated, minus Rick who was in Arkansas and dining on pulled pork, the waitress came and, to our dismay, recited the restaurant’s nightly specials, one of which was something with “seared tuna.” Another one of our unwritten by laws is that any recitation of daily specials is strictly forbidden. The mention by the waitstaff of anything “seared,” an absolute no no.  We understood that she was just doing her job—she was blameless in this fiasco.

Chicken pastilla: Sweet +savory=confused.

 We did our best and tried to stick with what was genuinely “North African,” avoiding pedestrian menu items like endive salad, steak au poivre, Moroccan crab cakes, and duck confit Our first choice was zaalouk, a wedge of roasted eggplant with tomato, a very good octopus salad, with fennel, orange and mint, and merguez, gamy lamb sausage. For entrees, there was tajines including lamb with prunes which excited Zio at the hopeful prospect of regularity, and a chicken tajine, a bland stew with pieces of chicken and vegetables. We tried something called chicken pastilla; kind of chicken pot pie stuffed into a phyllo-dough turnover and topped with powdered sugar. The savory and the sweet not a good combination here. Couscous is, of course, a North African staple, and it came with the tajines, but you can never have too much couscous, so we ordered a “couscous royal;” topped with vegetables and sausage, and accompanied with stewed chicken and lamb in the same, undistinguishable tajine broth.

 The waitress announced the dessert special as a “rose water” scented crème brulee. Knowing that there was no way we would come under our allotted $20 per person food budget and given the extraordinary opportunity to dine on crème brulee, scented with rose water no less, at one of our gatherings, we succumbed and even threw in an order of North African cookies that Zio commented, were suspiciously similar to what one might find in an Entemann’s box. As for the crème brulee, I sniffed, but the scent of rose water was non-existent. As it turned out, Rick, with his pulled pork in Arkansas , fared best of all of us on this night.

North African cookes…minus the Enteman’s box.

In reality, the food at Nomad was not bad at all. But our group sometimes travels in an alternate reality and in that world our Nomad experience was, as I said above, a “fiasco.” For those who are interested, Nomad now has added that Moroccan specialty, tapas, to their repertoire. For those interested, here is their very slick website: www.nomadrestaurant.com.

We were not fortunate to experience the “attractive back garden.”

Life Before the GPS

1 Oct

Back in 2002, none of our group had GPS navigational systems yet.  And I’m not even sure if they were around at that time.  For those who drove, getting to our third destination, an African restaurant in the now bustling, and renamed by real estate prospectors “Gold Coast” of Harlem, was comical.  What follows is my depiction of that experience in the spring of 2002.

Leworo Dou Gou
(R.I.P.)

When I arrived at Leworo Dou Gou restaurant, after getting off the B train at 116th Street and walking two blocks up “8th” Avenue to 118th street, I was relieved to see Charlie already at a table and waiting. In fact, he was the only one waiting in the restaurant. Our dinner was scheduled for 7:30. Charlie and I waited, inhaling the pronounced aroma of a fish market mixed in with other strong, yet unfamiliar smells. The aroma, coupled with the fuzzy reception of “Wheel of Fortune” on the restaurant’s television, was beginning to make me feel a bit dubious about this outing, our third of 2002. I glanced at the menu and was relieved to see that none of the “Natural African Dish From the Motherland” were priced above $7. At Leworo Dou Gou we would be very hard pressed to surpass the $20 limit we imposed on ourselves when beginning this venture.

The Motherland encompasses a very vast mother of a land, but Leworo Dou Gou claimed to represent the Ivory Coast portion of that continent. Charlie and I were still waiting when my cell phone rang. Zio was close by, searching for Eighth Avenue. I told him to look for Frederick Douglass Boulevard, which on maps and in the phone book goes by the name of Eighth Avenue. A few minutes later, he walked in. So now there were three of us. The smells, which were beginning to test my stomach, immediately enticed Zio.  But Zio would salivate at the smell of burnt toast. While we waited for the remaining three in our party, we studied the menu wondering what “dry okra sauce,” “cassava leaf,” and “LaFide” might be. There was also something called “agouti.” The name was familiar and I recalled that I actually tasted agouti on the island of Grenada in the Caribbean. It was in the rodent family and I remember it being very tough and gamey. That not so complimentary description only reinforced Zio’s determination to taste the rat.

The three of us continued to wait, we were beginning to worry. The phone rang in the restaurant and a woman behind the take out counter of the restaurant answered. I could hear her struggling, in her English with strong French inflections, to give directions. One of our own was lost. A few minutes later, Rick pulled up. He had been searching for Eighth Avenue. A big mistake, as we were beginning to find out, since there were no street signs proclaiming the street we were on as being Eighth Avenue. After a few more minutes the phone rang again. Again the same woman was attempting to give directions. She gave up and handed the phone to a man who was sitting behind us, the owner, we later learned. He spoke perfect English and explained, on the phone to whomever he was talking to, that Frederick Douglass Boulevard was Eighth Avenue. He had been, it turned out, talking to Gerry and a few minutes later both he and Eugene walked in.

By now, either the smells had mellowed or I was too hungry to notice or care anymore. We all were ready to eat, but we had no clue what to order. We did learn that there was no more grilled fish, and to Zio’s disappointment, no agouti. Rick made the wise choice, he told the waitress to bring six dishes, a combination of some of the different items on the menu. While our food was being prepared we all had homemade ginger beer, tangy with a sharp hint of lime along with the zesty ginger. To entertain us while we drank and ate, the owner switched from the fuzzy network television, to a video of “soukous” music from West Africa, some of which, he claimed he personally photographed while at a concert back in the “motherland.” The music was infectious and the video production, gritty especially the scenes with the dancing midget. Or was he a dwarf?

Our food came, one heaping plate at a time. Fried whole fish (croaker) with plantain. Fried whole fish with cassava and yams. Stewed “hard” chicken, grilled chicken and beef on a stick, stewed fish in okra sauce, and an aspic-type wedge of what seemed to be pounded banana, which, by itself was bland, but worked with the sauce from either the stew chicken or fish. We were given forks and knives, but noticed that one of the restaurant’s customers expertly ate his meal without either. Even with forks and knives, our hands got greasy and we made what probably was the unusual request at Leworo Dou Gou for napkins. What we got were sections of paper towels.

The six of us soon devoured the food leaving only fish bones and cleanly picked pieces of chicken. Everything else had been eaten with Zio and Gerry even sucking up the last of okra sauce with the remaining few kernels of rice. There was no mention of dessert on the menu and the owner wasn’t offering anything but coffee, so we ended it there. All that for only $12 dollars per person left us wondering how Leworo Dou Gou could stay in business.

Leworo Dou Gou did not stay in business for long. Within a few months of our visit it was gone.  But that’s not uncommon among the African restaurants around the area of West 116th Street known as “Little Senegal.” They come and go with great frequency.  Though as the neighborhood changes and rents increase, I wonder how long the African influence in the area will remain. In 2002 there were vacant lots and tenements surroiunding Leworo Dou Gou. Now, across the street from where Leworo Dou Gou was there is a market price condo with a Chase bank, Starbucks, and a gourmet supermarket. A few blocks up an Aloft Hotel ( a divison of  W Hotels) will soon open while new restaurants are so prevelant on Frederick Douglass Blvd that some are saying the street will become Harlem’s “Restaurant Row.” But will they qualify for our $20 and under crowd?

The storefront that was once Leworo Gou Dou

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