Open Tuesday through Friday, noon to 3 p.m.; daily, 6 to 11:30 p.m. MC, V, BVA. Reservations. Prices: Main dishes $5 to $6.75 at dinner. Full dinner with wine or beer about $20 to $25 a couple.
We will get to the food later. BaoBab is the first West African restaurant Washington has seen in years, and probably the spark for a chain reaction (already La Teranga, a second Senegalese restaurant, has opened at 4926 Wisconsin Ave. NW). So it is automatically drawing attention. The chocolate colored awning identifies BaoBab as something new and fresh in Adams Morgan. Inside, the ceiling is high and the walls are white stucco; the room looks open and airy. Along two walls are tables set with red cloths and high ladderback chairs. None of that makes it more than just a nice looking restaurant. But the woven grass fans hung on each chair -- ah, yes, something new has come to town. On the walls are giant palm fans and painted African scenes. The few plants and wooden masks are just enough to set rather than overdo the theme. African music plays against the chatter of voices and greetings as new friends come in the door.
BaoBab represents Senegal and Mali on its menu; its liveliness is universal.
Now that the restaurant has a liquor license, diners may not bother with the non-alcoholic drinks. But, while the wine list is quite reasonable (most $6 to $9) and varied, you ought to try at least once le mou roudj, a drink made with lemon, pineapple and fresh ginger, enough ginger to prickle your tongue. It certainly beats American ginger ale.
Now, about the food. It all sounds fascinating: rice with lamb and peanut butter sauce, sea trout with ginger sauce, "seafood mix vegetable," couscous and fou fou and chicken au yassa. And it looks fine, served on individual wooden trays with molden rice or grains and bowls of stews. But as you sample your way through the menu and grow to realize the reason the waiter was not able to explain the difference between one dish and another was that there is no discernible difference.
There is a basic sauce -- hot and red. There are two or three basic starches -- rice, couscous, manioc -- and there are fish, lamb and chicken to combine with them. Thus, "seafood mix vegetable" is dry, strong-flavored fish with a lot of bones and skin in a hot sauce with carrots on top. Sea trout is dry, strong-flavored fish with hot red sauce and no carrots on top. Couscous is fish or lamb in the same hot sauce, but with mounds of red-tinged cooked cabbage, zucchini and carrots -- on the side rather than on top. Chicken multiplies the theme. Side dishes vary somewhat; the specialty bambera comes with a bowl of gluey okra with lentils floating in it.
Three dishes diverged from the seasoning theme and are the most worthwhile to try if you are unfamiliar with African food and simply seeking to feed your nostalgia. Chicken au yassa is a savory combination of lemon and stewed onions with chicken -- unfortunately dry chicken. Lamb with peanut better sauce is green and interesting in its vegetable -- pepper-peanut combination.For less adventurous tastes, there is a lamb brochette seasoned with red pepper flakes and skewered with onions, a bit dry but pleasant enough.
No, I have not been captivated by the food at BaoBab. I enjoyed the dark ruddy brown sorrel soup, fiery with pepper and chewy with dried sorrel flowers, but I haven't craved it since. The fried plantains are good, their dousing in that house red sauce and onions was no improvement over plain fried plantains. The salads are fine, tartly dressed.
But the fish need not be strong and bony to be African. And the chicken need not be cooked dry, nor the lamb juiceless. Dessert, when it is available, is a flat, greasy pancake in cream, only the cream is but thin milk. Better draining and richer saucing could render this beignet worthwhile.
BaoBab is an eminently likable restaurant, with a friendly staff right up to the chief, who comes out to the street to bid you goodbye. Service is rapid, but it could be better paced to allow you to finish one course before the other comes. The room is appealing, with an exotic air to it and a family warmth. BaoBab definitely fills a need in Washington's restaurant repertoire. But we have grown used to good cooking in Washington's ethnic restaurants, with fresh fish and careful preparation. Exotic is not enough. Inexpensive is not enough. So BaoBab has a way to go before it is more than a novelty and competes for culinary attention among its peers.