A Taste of Africa

00:00 December 21, 2013

 New Orleans is the mecca of exotic cuisine. This land we love is a melting pot of various cultures colliding in culinary outlet to bring on the platter worthy big bang. The mystery is not in why we are mentioned throughout history books and by the foodie voyeurs of the world. Cajun fare captivates eaters with dishes based on country cooking à la bayou Français. Creole is European and African in creation with a heavy French influence. The African elements, for instance the okra, soups and stews commonly found throughout West Africa, are simple ingredients in nature. Local foodstuffs accommodate this uncomplicated structure and makes the area a perfect market for African restaurants.
When I mention to friends that I’m a food writer they are initially shocked. They’re even more shocked to learn that I have a culinary degree considering most have only ever known me as a model. Having traveled all over the planet for work, I know a good foreign dish when I taste it. I’ll be the first to try something most would leave to an adventurous Anthony Bourdain of sorts – taste buds without borders or what have you. You catch my drift. To have discovered African restaurants in New Orleans I must admit I shook with excitement. “Please tell me we have to eat this with our hands like they do in the tundra” I say to my lunch partner for the day. Even though I was the only one enthused about getting sauce under my nails, unearthing the key to Motherland cuisine in the Big Easy was less a chore than it was a lovely treasure hunt.
Bennechin makes their mark every year at Jazz Fest with Black Eyed Pea fritters, known on the menu as  Akara and protein based favorites like Sisay Singho, the baked chicken leg quarter served with sauteed spinach, coconut rice and plantains. If you run across this vendor during the most music filled spring time session of the year, be happy to know they have a brick and mortar space year ‘round that serves food 7 days a week. The restaurant takes it’s name from an African jambalaya, an entree that graces the menu, and the rest of the selections can be made to order to accommodate vegan and vegetarian diners. Taking culinary inspirations from Gambia and Cameroon, Bennechin has been bringing solid full course meals to the most critical mouths of the South since 1992. Starting out in Old Metairie, the restaurant now calls Royal Street in the French Quarter home. A playground for tourists and Quarter confined locals alike, the location has proven lucrative for the establishment.
From Dominique’s to Tamarind (Hotel Le Cirque) to Dominique’s on Magazine, Chef Dominique Macquet is a smart business man and one hell of a seasoned veteran in the kitchen. A native of Mauritius, an Indian Ocean fixated island off the coast of South Africa, he has made it his mission to incorporate all he’s ever known as far as tropical culinary staples to his work here in Louisiana. Fresh fruits, seafood, spices and Creole influence are apparent at first bite. Since arriving in New Orleans after cooking in South Africa, Europe, England and Beverly Hills, Macquet has won Best New Restaurant honors from Esquire magazine, not once, but twice in 1997 and 2011. He was voted New Orleans’ Chef of the Year in 1997 and has been honored by Distinguished Restaurants of North America. All high honors and valuable recognitions to only help build his reputation in a town that seems to be endlessly hungry for more.  The acclaimed cookbook author and visiting Chef to many widely known events and venues, the White House, The James Beard Foundation, and Disney’s Epcot Food and Wine Festival to name a few, he has accented the country with his signature style. His fondest memory of all the invitations ever received was to be a part of the first meal Nelson Mandela ate outside of prison walls. A monumental time for South Africans, Chef Macquet was a part of major newslining history, proving his ability is as duly respected as his craft is admired.
Golden Feather prides itself on it’s history rich background. Started by couple Shaka and Na’imah Zulu, the restaurant is not only a haven for those seeking traditional African cuisine, but culture as well. The Mardi Gras Indians play a massive role in the charm and worldly atmosphere that the space exudes. Framed art and showcased traditional pieces are showcased on display for patrons to feast their eyes on. The venue almost seems more like an art exhibit rather than a dining establishment. Then the food... Hu Ta Nay, or stuffed jumbo Gulf shrimp comes filled with crabmeat dressing and then fried to perfection – excuse me, but I’m tapping out there. So good. New Orleans style elements grace the menu like Bar-B-Q shrimp and Red Beans and Rice, but if you’re feeling adventurous, try the Big Chief: fish smothered in onions, tomatoes and African spices served over brown or white rice.
On Magazine Street by Jackson Avenue sits Nile Ethiopian Cuisine. Native Ethiopian Tessaye Mendesha runs the restaurant with his family. Back in April, a building fire where his establishment is housed caused a five month period of closure in which Mendesha admits he revised the menu. Additional vegetarian items and seafood dishes are now available and Mendesha is pleased with the way business has picked up since the re-opening. Favorites among patrons includes Injera and Lamb Tibs as well as the  vegetarian platter. Nile is BYOB, but that has not hindered the restaurant’s success. Interesting, good food and acceptable pricing will always bring customers back.
Maple Street’s Jamila’s Cafe offers Tunisian and Mediterranean cuisine. Charming and intimate, as described by Zagat, the cafe is run by Chef Jamila and her husband Moncef Sbaa who say intimacy was their ultimate goal. It is not unusual for the warm couple to greet their customers and talk about the menu items. The fare is much like Moroccan food in heartiness and spice while the Mediterranean flair is prominent in healthy selections and fresh salads with fruit and nuts. Superb attention to patrons earns this venue a gold star for customer service. If you like entertainment with your chow, stop by on a Saturday night for some belly dancing.
At first appearance, Cafe Abyssinia doesn’t look like your average restaurant. The unassuming exterior and homey atmosphere confirms that this joint is all about the food – no fluff just good eats. Ethiopian delights like the raved about Injera, Yebeg Alicha (stewed lamb) and Sambusas are favorites among guests. One visitor said it was the best Injera he’s ever eaten claiming it was perfectly soft and pleasantly tart. No one will give you the crazy eye for requesting a fork, but if you’re in it for the full experience, know that it is acceptable to Ethiopian food with your hands. Group platters are normally shared with bread for easier serving.

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