On a television in the corner of the dining room, just in front of the “LOVE is THE answer” sign, a Dakar station is broadcasting a Senegalese wrestling match, apparently live. It’s the start of the pro season in Senegal, and spectators have packed the stadium to witness the popular sport known as laamb, which combines ceremonial dancing, ancient rituals to ward off black magic and bare-fisted blows to the head.
The marquee match has also attracted numerous customers to Chez Dior, a Senegalese eatery in Hyattsville, just across the street from Franklins, the colorful, kid-friendly restaurant where fights are limited to siblings warring over the last onion ring. Unlike me, most of the diners at Chez Dior need no instruction to the bloody folk art of Senegalese wrestling.
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Mamadou Fall and his partner, Binette Seck, opened Chez Dior a year ago to cater to Senegalese transplants, who used to order takeout from the couple’s home kitchen. “Whatever they miss in Senegal,” Mamadou says of his diners, “that’s what I’m trying to represent.”
Whether they miss Senegalese pro wrestling or just a plate of yassa chicken, Chez Dior is their place. After experiencing the couple’s patient, eager-to-please hospitality, not to mention Seck’s elegantly plated home-style cooking, I’m ready to call Chez Dior my place, too. The food is simultaneously foreign and familiar, a mix of comforting grill smoke and funky West African flavors — sour and fermented, sweet and hot.
The laminated menu is divided into lunch and dinner entrees, which sounds reasonable until you realize several visits later that the most interesting dishes are available only for the midday meal, considered the main one in Senegal. Not to worry. If you ask, many lunch plates can be prepared for dinner as well, which is a relief. You don’t want to miss the yassa chicken.
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Often known as poulet yassa — French remains the official language of this former colony — the dish is kind of like West African smothered chicken. Except at Chez Dior, Seck serves her caramelized onions on the side, in a separate oval dish, allowing you to compose the perfect bite of chargrilled leg meat, lemony bright onion sauce and white rice. Should you want it, you can electrify the bite with the accompanying Jamaican hot-pepper condiment, an accent so hot you should treat it like an annoying neighbor: Limit your interactions with it.
Onion sauce, in various guises, makes multiple appearances here. With the caldou, a whole tilapia is marinated in an onion sauce spiked with fresh tomatoes and a generous dose of white vinegar before hitting the grill. In most restaurants, this fish would then be ready for prime time, but not here. Once par-grilled (is that even a culinary term?), the tilapia returns to the onion sauce for a long simmer until it reaches a mouthwatering shade of black walnut. The sweet-sour-pungent preparation will turn even tilapia haters into fanboys.
Some dishes may require patience, such as the Senegalese thiebou dienne, often misleadingly labeled a fish stew. Its name in the Wolof language provides a more accurate description: ceebu jen, or “rice” and “fish” in the tribal tongue. Whatever you call it, the “red” version of thiebou dienne here takes the form of a dark and moody slab of bar jack stained with tamarind-tomato sauce. The bony, parsley-and-jalapeno-stuffed fish arrives surrounded by equally vocal partners, whether sweet, soft-cooked carrots or chewy, sweet-and-sour broken rice tinted with the same tamarind-tomato sauce. The chili-pepper condiment resurfaces to kick the dish up a notch, or 50. Over the course of the meal, the plate assumes the open-ended nature of a Lego set: You’re free to mix ingredients any way you want until you find the right combination, or something approximating it.
You can see the fingerprints that other countries have left on Senegalese cooking, even if their impressions have been blurred by time. Nems are born from the same family that gave us Vietnamese spring rolls, except the semi-crispy logs at Chez Dior are fat with mushrooms and ground chicken, a pork-free nod to Senegal’s Islamic culture. The French influence lingers in the form of beignets, though not the airy squares of choux pastry you might enjoy with chicory coffee in New Orleans, a Mississippi breeze blowing confectioner’s sugar on your pants. No, these are crusty nuggets, as much savory as sweet, as if an entire country understood the danger of opening its pantry to refined sugar.
Chez Dior even opens the door to other countries’ dishes. Cameroonian ndole takes advantage of an ingredient common to Senegalese cooking: peanuts, a powderized version that’s incorporated into a heady mixture of bitterleaf, spinach, hot peppers and something strange but pleasantly skunky. Spicy, funk-forward and fascinating, the dish proves irresistible. Even America gets a nod with the Chez Dior burger, a peppery patty cooked well done but paired with a fried egg, Senegalese onion sauce, American cheese and other toppings that raise the juiciness level to something approaching ecstasy. I wouldn’t hesitate to order it again.
Senegalese transplants, of course, are more likely to order a dish like dibi, a pile of marinated and grilled lamb chops that, like the yassa chicken, will return to its onion marinade for a second time before arriving in the dining room. More sauces can be applied tableside — to sweeten, acidify or ignite those charred pieces of lamb. Natives would likely also pair the dibi with attieke, a couscous-like side of fermented cassava root, starchy and slightly sour.
Yes, that’s what a real Senegalese would do, but right now, I’m the only diner nibbling on dibi at Chez Dior on a Thursday night. It’s just me, Mamadou Fall (who’s staring at his phone), and the painted elephant and zebras above my head. Maybe the owners need another wrestling match to attract customers. Or maybe they just need someone to tell you what a West African gem Chez Dior is.
5124 Baltimore Ave., Hyattsville, 240-696-5907, www.chezdior.com
Hours: Daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., except Tuesday, when the restaurant is closed.
Nearest Metro: West Hyattsville and Prince George’s Plaza, with about a 1.5-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $6.99-$14.99.