Business is bustling at Safari5/25/2016
At 5 p.m. on a recent Sunday, three hours before closing time, I tried to order a few things from Des Moines’ newest African café — Safari. Fish? Sorry, sold out. Goat, then, with plantain fufu? All gone. Which is gone, the goat or the fufu?
Both gone today. Anjera, then? Sorry sold out. Kati kati with shrimp? No, only with chicken or beef. Ok, chicken kati kati and beef with rice. Sorry rice is sold out.
The place was still bustling with people who had the good sense to go out for Sunday dinner much earlier than I. I learned that the store was particularly slammed this day, but business is consistently very good. That’s good news. Des Moines has seen several African restaurants come and go. Some were West African-based — Cookry and Soul Africa. International African Café was pan African. Mandela focused more on the eastern Horn of Africa — Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. All were quite good, at least in the kitchen. None lasted very long. Africa Cuisine has probably made the longest run in town. Safari is an upgrade.
Taking over an address that previously housed Mandela, it still looks like it was designed for Taqueria Jose or Casa de Pollos Rotizados, two excellent Mexican cafés that did not last long either. In between them, the store was home to Central Grill, a decent place that was hard to describe. May the current success be a sign that the address has finally found true love.
My Sunday visit reminded me of recent conversations I have held with other food writers regarding the word “authentic.” (Most agree that no good can ever come from using the word in a food review.) Thirty years ago — which was 25 years before economists began talking about “The Ethiopian miracle” — there was probably no more authentic Ethiopian dining experience than being told almost everything was sold out. That was a time of dreadful famine that inspired a diaspora of Ethiopians to Europe and America, along with their marvelous recipes. Superstar chef Marcus Sanderson is one such refugee.
Another, much earlier, diaspora also influenced the best cuisines of the Horn. As the 19th century closed, skilled Indian workers were imported by the British to build the Uganda Railroad. Most stayed and brought their families after the railroad was completed. No country on Earth has incorporated Indian recipes into its native cuisine. That is obvious at Safari. Rices are colored with turmeric and made with basmati. Jabatis are indistinguishable from chapatis, except that at Safari they are often shredded and placed under a curry, rather than used like tortillas to scoop it up. Samosas were Indian samosas in all but name and were served with chutneys that one would expect in Indian cafés. Naan was actually described as Indian.
Dishes called “stew” and “kati kati” were de facto curries, too. Goat meat, served with rice, was the least spicy protein on the menu. Goat liver stars on the breakfast menu, but I have not had the pleasure. Fufu is Nigeria’s national dish and is usually made with cassava flour. Here it is made with plantain bananas. Injera, the spongy bread that doubles as flatware and sometimes even a table, is made with teff and has nothing to do with India, except for hosting curries and such.
Non-Sunday visits produce more available dishes. A large parking lot is next door to an interesting new ethnic supermarket.
Side Dishes: Prime restaurant has lured French chef Nicolas Antoine Ebtinger to its kitchen from the much-appreciated Bistro Niko in Buckhead, Georgia. Like the Atlanta café, Prime is now dry aging its beef and featuring lavish, iced seafood service… Five Guys Burger & Fries announced its first area store is coming to Jordan Creek area. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.
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