Hatib Joof and his wife, Yaikah, were entertaining guests at a West African restaurant — he won’t name names because that’s not how he rolls — when the staff started moving tables out of the way to make room for a band. Next thing they know, their dinner had turned into a dance party, as patrons swayed around them to the sensuous lilt of reggae.
That’s when Joof, then operations manager at Spring Mill Bread Company, made a decision. After dropping off their guests, Joof turned to his wife and promised that he would one day change how West African food is served in Washington. He would create an elegant space where those from his native Gambia — or Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo or anywhere else along western edge of the continent — could enjoy their dinner in peace, like Americans do at just about every other restaurant. He would carve out a spot where West Africans could recognize themselves in the decor, the food and, just as important, in the easy conversation that flows across tables, whether the language is Wolof, Yoruba, Mandinka or English.
Good to his word, Joof opened Mansa Kunda in early January in Takoma Park.
Mansa Kunda, which Joof says translates to “kingdom” in Mandinka, claims a small corner in a neighborhood strip center that now serves as a portal to West Africa. Live music may have no place at the restaurant, but its decor and furnishings are a tribute to the vibrations of the land: A balafon, a wood-and-gourd instrument similar to a xylophone, hangs on one wall. Stringed instruments — a kora here, a ngoni there — adorn counters, shelves and walls. And, most prominently, goblet-shaped djembes have been fashioned into chairs and bar stools, their drum heads serving as seats.
One way to start to forget is by requesting a traditional hand washing. Like Ethiopians on the east side of the continent, West Africans eat with their hands, but instead of relying on injera as their utensil, they often pinch off a ball of fufu dough and form it into a small hollow to scoop up stews. Yet no matter how you approach dinner at Mansa Kunda, with cutlery or with your digits, the hand-washing ceremony eases you into the experience. It’s as if you’re rinsing off the outside world so you can enter a new one, pure in body and spirit. After squeezing the slice of lime that floated in a calabash bowl of warm water, I pulled my hands from the gourd shell and instinctively pressed them to my nose, inhaling the tropical perfume. My senses felt fully alive for the feast ahead.
Joof worked with Abdoulie Singateh, a French-trained chef at Balducci’s, to write recipes that could be easily replicated by anyone in the Mansa Kunda kitchen. Part of their mission was to devise stews and sauces that could be paired with a variety of main ingredients, whether beef, chicken, fish, tofu or paneer. So they custom-built stews without the use of meat, forgoing an ingredient that typically adds depth and complexity. In practical terms, Joof’s approach means that his meatier dishes require two separate steps: first, the creation of a stew and then, once you order, the addition of your desired protein so that it can release its juices into the stew, leading to a richer and more robust base. The process adds to your wait time, a problem that I and others have endured on occasion.
Though dedicated to West African food and culture, Mansa Kunda knows its audience, more than half of which are white, Joof tells me. The owner, accordingly, dials down the amount of palm oil and the number of chile peppers used in his dishes, though only students of the cuisine and diners of West African extraction may notice. Those who like to dance on the edge of superhot peppers can always request more heat — or just add a dollop of kaani, the habanero-based condiment that pushes every bite into the red zone.
The spice level of the supakanja, a traditional Gambian stew, strikes me as perfect; the ambient heat marks the outer boundaries of a dish loose and jiggly with okra and palm oil. The spice gives the whole dish its form and depth. The habanero sting of the ebbeh seafood soup is more pronounced, its heat serving as both collaborator and counterpoint to the lime, tamarind, cassava and saltwater breeze of blue crab and shrimp. The most confounding use of spice comes, not surprisingly, in dessert form. Joof’s cayenne-and-rosemary cake toys with your tolerance for heat within the traditional sugary confines of a confection. My palate flitted from sweet to heat, never able to reconcile the two.
The peanut butter chu gives Joof a chance to showcase a product that he imports from West Africa, where groundnuts (i.e., peanuts) have a flavor profile distinct from their Virginia cousins. “Those who are raised in Africa can tell the difference because [the groundnut] is not sweet,” Joof says. I ordered the peanut butter chu with croaker, whose grilled skin injected a campfire flavor into a stew that hums at a low frequency, nutty and (dare I say it?) sweet. The same grilled croaker, bones and all, was paired with my plasas, a greens-heavy stew served with fufu. None of the dish’s principal components — fish, stew, fufu — have much to say on their own, but collectively they sing like a choir.
Joof’s menu looks limited, but it reveals its depth over several visits. The turnovers, blistered from the deep fryer, don’t fully express themselves until slathered with the accompanying shito pepper condiment, with its umami funk of dried bonga fish. The inviting oleleh is often described as pudding, but it’s more like a tamal formed from ground black-eyed peas, water and palm oil, its richness cut with strips of smoky fish. The kitchen tends to grill its chicken to a state of dehydration, yet the birds are somehow always resuscitated by another component, whether the black-pepper bite of the yassa onion sauce or the tomato sweetness of the jollof rice.
The dessert menu is a byproduct of Joof’s many years at Spring Mill Bread. My favorite is his ginger-and-tamarind cake, with its syrupy nip of candied ginger. It’s so good I practically want to dance, my friend providing a beat on his djembe chair. Well, I do until I remember Joof’s distaste for dancing in dining rooms.
8000 Flower Ave., Takoma Park, Md. 301-589-8222; mansakunda.com.
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 9:30 a.m. to midnight Friday; 10 a.m. to midnight Saturday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Takoma, with about 1.5 mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: $3.95 to $16.95 for appetizers, soups and sides; $14.95 to $19.95 for entrees.