Thursday, June 07, 2007

Exploring the World One Entrée at a Time

Recently while walking in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood, I found a West African restaurant on Telegraph Avenue called Lam-Toro. I didn’t have any idea what West African cuisine would be like, so I made a point of going as soon as possible.

Yesterday I went at lunchtime. Because of an evening class, I eat both lunch and dinner early on Wednesdays, so I got there at 11:45. The door was unlocked, but the waiter told me it would actually be another half hour until they were open.

A word about this waiter: If I were opening an African restaurant, and I were looking for ways to make it seem authentically African, I would pay whatever it took to hire this guy. He was a strikingly handsome man, tall, dark, and chiseled. He looked like Seal with better skin. He was wearing a long, colorful shirt that went to his knees and he had a great accent. (I’m not sure exactly what kind of accent it was. He spoke fluent English with me, high-school textbook French with a patron at the next table, and something I didn’t recognize with the other people who worked there.)

It turns out the restaurant is brand new, having only opened a few days before. In addition, someone in the family that owns the restaurant had had a car accident that morning, so they’d all been very late getting to work.

The result was the longest lunch I think I’ve ever had in the United States, and certainly my longest solo lunch ever. I waited over an hour for my food. I had time to write a text message (which takes me forever; I’m too old for IM fluency) to Pipi saying that I thought I might actually be a hostage.

If this were the perfect travelogue, lunch, when it finally came, would have been the best thing ever. I wouldn’t say that was exactly the case--the dish was a little greasy and over-salted. But I would still say it was worth the wait just because I finally had an idea of what West African cuisine is like.

The menu indicated that Lam-Toro is specifically a Senegalese restaurant. About half the dishes had French names. There was a lot of chicken on the menu, and also a lot of lamb. Most of the meat was served with either rice or couscous. There was a dish called fou-fou, which I’ve always wanted to try, but it was a Thursday special, and I was there Wednesday.

Unfortunately, at lunchtime you don’t get much of a choice of what to order. Much of the menu is only served at dinner, so there were really only two daily specials available to me. I had lamb chops with rice, the other choice being a fish stew. The chops were roasted with a lot of spices, and served with a sauce that was oily and full of onion. I liked it but it occurs to me that this place might be best for single people. Six hours and two brushings later I still had bad breath. The rice was delicious. It was salty and buttery, and had chunks of hard-boiled egg in it.

The beverage selection was a little exotic. Some kind of a ginger drink was available, but I chose to try bissap, which was described as a hibiscus juice. It tasted like a drink called Jamaica that I’ve had at Mexican restaurants, except that the Senegalese version has muddled mint in it, and it’s sweeter. (I overheard someone say that Senegal has the largest per-capita sugar consumption rate in Africa, but I have no idea if this is really true.)

The long and the short of it is that I’m glad I’ve had a taste of Senegalese cuisine. I would do it again, but I would go at dinnertime and have a snack first. I’d also wait a few weeks until the service issues settle down.

But I may need more of that rice very soon. I wonder if there’s another West African restaurant in Oakland?

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