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Africa Kine in Harlem
Returns to Its Humble Roots

The restaurant was once named Africa, as if embracing an entire continent, when in fact the focus was on the cooking of the western coast, mainly Senegal.

 

Samba Niang and Kine (pronounced kee-nay) Mar, natives of Dakar, opened its doors two decades ago on the northern side of West 116th Street in Harlem — a strip that soon after became known as Le Petit Sénégal, in honor of the immigrants who brought French and billowing boubous (ankle-length tunic-gowns) to the neighborhood.

 

Eventually the restaurant acquired the suffix Kine, after Ms. Mar, the chef. The space it occupied was small and humble, but in 2005 it turned grand, moving across the street and sprawling over two stories. Takeout was offered below, through a plexiglass shield that grew amber with the years. A stairway wound past carvings in illuminated niches to a dining room with faux-marble tabletops, booths and drapes swept back from yawning windows.

 

In the kitchen, women cooked crowded, fragrant stews by day and men roasted monuments of meat by night.

 

Then, in 2014, Africa Kine closed. The rent was too high; there were rumors of a 7-Eleven moving in. It took Mr. Niang and Ms. Mar almost a year to reopen, last September, 17 blocks uptown.

 

The new space, a former hair salon, is again small and humble. A spartan foyer leads to a takeout window straight ahead and the dining room to the right, with a “Please seat yourself” sign draped in unlit twinkle lights. The booths are one-sided now, the tables more intimate, under a ceiling punctuated by glowing squares of green, yellow and red.

 

The division of labor in the kitchen persists, with women on the lunch shift, under Ms. Mar, and men clocking in for dinner, under her son, Mbodj Niang. The roster of dishes rotates, so not all are available every day.

 

Come early for chicken yassa, the meat exuding lemon under onions grown slack and sweating sugar, and lamb mafe, a stew creamy with peanut butter, elsewhere in town often too beholden to peanuts but here leavened by streaks of sweet and sour.

 

Suppa kandja, a rubble of okra asea in shining palm oil, stays true to okra’s natural texture, which in Western cultures is often obliterated; what others may call sliminess here lends a kind of buoyancy.

 

Some lunchtime dishes are made in such quantities that they last through dinner. No such luck with thiebou djeun, or thieb for short, which is traditionally eaten at noon, with the recommendation of a nap afterward.

 

The plate can barely contain it: red snapper, stuffed with a paste of garlic, onions, peppers and parsley, on a broad stage of rice ruddy from tomato paste and primed with guedj, fermented dried fish, and yete, fermented dried sea snail, funky missives from the sea.

 

If you’re lucky, there will be a touch of crispy, nearly burnt grains scraped from the bottom of the pot, called khogn in Wolof and akin to Persian tahdig, Korean nurungji and Spanish socarrat.

 

Dinner is a languorous procession of heavy plates, perhaps laden with a whole tilapia, deeply slashed and crackling, mobbed on one side by sweet fried plantains, or mechoui, Moroccan-style leg of lamb, whose dark gilding swiftly strips away, the flesh underneath ready to capitulate.

 

Petit pois, fresh green peas, arrive whole and still taste miraculously bright, despite an eternity of stewing. On a recent evening, they were presented with lamb, but my table barely noticed, doting on the peas and their companion potatoes, which had hit the precise mark between sturdy and tender.

 

A meal may begin with nem, deep-fried but still delicate rice-paper rolls, a recipe handed down by the Vietnamese wives of Senegalese soldiers who fought for the French colonial army in Indochina. And then end with thiakry, millet couscous swollen with sugared milk and sour cream and given a judicious larding of pineapple. This comes in two versions, with white grains or black, the first straightforwardly sweet, the second nuttier, mustier and more interesting.

 

Drinks are sweet, too: bissap (hibiscus), tilting toward cough syrup; ginger, with a late ambush of heat; and bouye (baobab fruit), whose taste I may never know.

 

“It is coming,” the waiter said, more than once, but it never did. In the end, he acknowledged that, for now, the kitchen can’t make it. But he had wanted to keep my hopes alive.

Original Article