3102 Mount Pleasant St. NW. 234-1600. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; for dinner 6 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; for dancing
from 10:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday. No credit cards.
Reservations suggested. Prices: at lunch, appetizers $1.50 to $2.50, entrees $4.75 to $9; at dinner, appetizers $1.50 to $2.50, entrees $6 to $11.50. Full
dinner with drinks, tax and tip less than $20 a person.
OVER THE YEARS several West African restaurants have surfaced in Washington, but none has lasted very long. Now another is testing the waters. So again we have a chance to try the curries, jollof rice, peanut stews and casseroles of jute leaves and palm husks that form one of the few cuisines left to surprise Washington.
The African Room is an adventure. Not only is the food exotic for Washington tastebuds, but the restaurant operates in a fairly haphazard way. Some days the dining room has been unexpectedly closed for lunch; the staff has seemed overwhelmed if more than a couple of tables were occupied for dinner; and the menu designates several dishes not by their meat or seafood component but by the vegetable in them: Fried Okra (which is shrimp with an okra sauce), Petits Pois (liver with peas), Palm Butter (which may be oxtail or another meat with a palm butter sauce).
At its best, The African Room operates like a one-man band. Ibrahim Thiero is the owner-chef, but if you're lucky he is also overseeing the dining room, describing the dishes as none of the waitresses has been able to do on my visits. His monologue takes you on a geo-culinary tour of West and Central Africa. This dish is from Senegal, he explains, and that one from Ghana, and the third spans several countries. Without his presence the service is passive; he turns it enthusiastic. Similarly, when he has been a visible presence in the dining room, the food has been better, too.
The best way to start a meal at The African Room is with Dacoumou Soup, an inky-looking fish soup with dried hibiscus flowers that have the color and texture of Chinese tree ear mushrooms. The soup varies day to day from thin and nearly clear to denser and opaque; on a good day the taste is essence of fish -- "fish juice," one diner called it. It can be tart and spicy, intensely seasoned and quite exotic in taste; or it can taste mostly of hot pepper.
There is also a Chicken Pepper Soup, its broth tinged red- gold from palm oil, also tangy and sometimes intensely peppered, with chunks of chicken and beef. Also among appetizers are fried plantains -- mellow and faintly sweet, a good accompaniment to the main dishes -- and quiche lorraine, but it hasn't traveled well from its French origins.
The main dishes number about 16, and probably none of them is vaguely like anything you might have tasted outside of Africa. A whole new palette of spices and of vegetables is operating. Palm oil or palm butter, for instance, is an earthy and pervasive oil. Palava -- jute leaves -- tastes something like canned spinach but is quite intense. Probably the most universally likable dish is Fish Ibrahim, a meaty, juicy bluefish stuffed with minced parsley, scallions, green peppers and such, fried to a crusty surface and topped with a smooth and tart tomato sauce. Chicken Sofa, which is far more peppery, is also stuffed with a parsley-onion paste and marinated, then broiled to a smoky crustiness and rubbed with hot pepper paste. If you can handle the heat, it is delicious. Palm butter with whatever meat is being featured -- oxtail when I tried it -- is an unfamiliar but intriguing combination of flavors; it looks like a curry with a thick brown sauce, and the interplay of tastes is complex.
Several dishes I tried tasted pretty ordinary -- Jollof Rice was just a lot of red-tinged rice with bits of meat and vegetable; Chicken Yassa was stewed dry and flavored with plenty of onions but not enough lemon to lend flavor; and Groundnut Stew was overcooked hunks of bony chicken in a peanut sauce that needed seasoning. Other dishes were less than ordinary: Tieb Dienne was a fish stew mined with bones and intensely fishy, mounded on red rice and surrounded by watery, soggy chunks of cabbage, eggplant and unpeeled carrots.
Those same chunks of vegetable, accompanying other dishes on other days, were firmer and fresher tasting, better seasoned and more attractive. And on a good day the shrimp with okra, whether or not you like the grassy green sauce flavored with palm oil, are big, juicy shrimp cooked just enough.
Along with these mainstays comes a choice of rice, couscous -- quite pleasant and studded with chickpeas -- or fou fou, a glutinous starchy paste not for the fainthearted.
For dessert I would
encourage you to resist
the beignets; They are
the heaviest, gummiest,
chewiest and even perhaps the greasiest fried
things I can remember.
I have, though, become enamored of The African Room's ginger beer, which is an iced drink of orange, lemon and pineapple juices turned to cold fire by a lot of fresh ginger. The flavor is wonderful if ginger dazzle doesn't overcome you.
The African Room is big and plain, with white-clothed tables around a dance floor under a revolving mirrored ball. Its bar is roofed by some representation of thatch, and on the walls are artifacts such as fans and a drum. Not a lot of flair or atmosphere. It may be fun when the disc jockey is on duty, but it can be dreary when the room is nearly empty and nobody greets you at the door or the service is lackadaisical. The diner needs not only more of a welcome, but more guidance on the menu. Still, the restaurant has something that makes it seem a better bet than was even the much more attractive Baobab, which closed a few years ago. There is some good cooking poised to come out of that kitchen. And if the owner-chef can whip the dining room into shape and turn out more consistently good food, this could become more than an occasional expatriate hangout -- and show Washington what African food can be.