Restaurants: Out of Africa, August 21, 2008 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Restaurants: Out of Africa, August 21, 2008 

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Out of Africa

Addis Abeba1322 Chicago, Evanston | 847-328-5411

$$African | Lunch, dinner: seven days

We came on a Thursday evening and ordered two vegetarian combo meals, allowing us to sample a total of eight dishes. We eat Ethiopian regularly down in Edgewater, so perhaps our expectations were too high. But this place was mediocre at best—nothing particularly wrong, but certainly nothing right. The lentils and peas seemed undercooked, but even more disappointing was the seasoning: I can't think of any other way to explain it other than to call it canned tasting, the flavors one-dimensional. We ate almost everything and definitely left full, but we both decided that we wouldn't return, particularly with other good options (Ethiopian Diamond, Ras Dashen). Service here is on the slow side. —Meghan A. Burke, Rater

African Harambee7537 N. Clark | 773-764-2200

$$African | Lunch friday-sunday; dinner: seven days | Reservations accepted for large groups only

Harambee, the motto of Kenya, means "pulling together," and at this far-north-side pan-African restaurant, owner Sisay Abebe (formerly of Ethiopian Diamond) pulls together dishes from all over the continent. It's an intriguing concept, but for the most part the attempt to corral these distinct cuisines seems to have resulted in taming them down some. We started with African Summer Rolls (the only appetizer apart from soup or salad), cigar-shaped egg-roll skins stuffed with mildly spiced beef. Moving on to the meat portion of the menu (there are also seafood and vegetarian sections), we opted for the jollof rice, a dish called "spinach meat" (your choice of beef, lamb, or chicken with potatoes, carrots, and spinach in a tahini sauce), and the sleeper hit of the evening, a delicious dried fruit curry with lamb. Entrees come with your choice of rice, couscous, injera, chapati, or ugali, a cornmeal mush common in East Africa. The injera, served rolled into bundles on a small plate, was especially good—it's made with teff, a tiny grain indigenous to Ethiopia; many restaurants substitute farina. There are African beers and wines to try, and service couldn't have been more welcoming. —Kate Schmidt

Andalous

3307 N. Clark | 773-281-6885

$Moroccan, Mediterranean | Dinner: seven days.Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight | byo

Raters love the genial proprietor, Hadg Mohamad, who plays host while his wife, Rachida, does the cooking at this pleasant Lakeview spot with garden seating. Dishes especially worthy of notice are the pastilla, layers of chicken and spices in phyllo; the Tangiers tagine, whitefish fillets baked with tomato and green pepper and thin slices of carrots and potatoes in a garlic sauce; and desserts like selou, a pastry made with finely ground nuts and sesame seeds that comes in a cluster of one-inch squares. Spicy harissa and stuffed olives are part of every meal. "If I had to take someone to a Moroccan restaurant in Chicago, this would probably not be it," says one Rater. "But all in all, it's worth at least a visit." —Laura Levy Shatkin

Bolat African Cuisine3346 N. Clark | 773-665-1100

F 6.1 S 5.6 A 5.2 | $ (5 reports)African | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: every night till 11:30

Don't assume the big colorful balls of yam, cassava, and maize served at Bolat are just simple sides on a par with dinner rolls or mashed potatoes. Rather, amala (ground yam, purple and glutinous), fufu (beaten yam or cassava, white and firm), and kenkey (fermented maize) are integral to Ghanaian and Nigerian meals. Big as softballs, these doughy dumplings are to be ripped, shaped into small scoops, and used as eating utensils whose absorbency is a major consideration with many stews and soups served here. We had egusi stew, clumps of ground watermelon seed in tomato-spinach sauce, and ewedo soup, goat in whipped jute leaves, herbaceous and gooey. My partner had spicy fish and jollof rice with a deep smokiness that comes from letting the rice burn just enough. Feeling adventurous, we also sampled a small bowl of cow skin, kind of a combo of fat and gristle with minimal taste, though—like much we had here—new to our palates and so worth a bite. Palm wine, served in gourds, is salty, sour, and surprisingly complementary to saucy main courses. —David Hammond

Couscous1445 W. Taylor | 312-226-2408

$$Moroccan, African | Lunch: Monday-Saturday; Dinner: seven days

Italians have always had a thing for North Africa, so it's no surprise that Couscous does a good business in Chicago's Little Italy. There's the yawn-inducing typical Middle Eastern lineup of hummus, baba ghanoush, and stuffed grape leaves, and then there are tagines, light, soufflelike mounds of meat, egg, cheese, and vegetables. There's a lot of lamb to like here: it's served stewed, ground, cubed, skewered, and baked, and being old-school, with fat, funk, and more flavor than leaner breeds, it's generally quite tasty. The couscous, somewhat darker than you'd expect, is savory and loaded with veggies and chile peppers hotter than you typically find at other North African or Middle Eastern places in Chicago. Unfortunately, falafel, brika (pastry-encased mashed potato and egg), and other fried items seemed to have been made hours before and reheated—it's probably best to go with one of the lush stews. There's a lot on this menu to make vegetarians happy, and I enjoyed unidentifiable hunks of exotic squash in my Maghreb-style couscous. The lemonade, billed as homemade, didn't seem to be, but thick, sweet Turkish coffee, rich with cardamom, was spectacular. —David Hammond

Couscous House

4626 W. Lawrence, Chicago, (773) 777-9801.

Moroccan | Dinner: monday-saturday | closed sunday

Hadja Zohra, the mother of one of the partners of this two- month-old Algerian restaurant in Mayfair, keeps watch over the kitchen, maintaining quality control on the small menu of couscous plates, kebabs, and mezes. A heaping plate of the fluffy steamed pasta arrives with carrots, potatoes, squash, zucchini, and lamb or chicken, along with an accompanying bowl of the cinnamony red gravy merka. There's also a different tagine special each day, incorporating chicken and olives or some other preparation. Simple, minimal, and decent enough, this place has been nearly empty each time I've been by. It deserves some love. Note: alcohol is prohibited in the restaurant for the month of Ramadan. —Mike Sula

Crepe & Coffee Palace2433 N. Clark | 773-404-1300

$French, African | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | Reservations accepted for large groups only | BYO

Can a hidden treasure be in plain sight? On a busy stretch of Clark just north of Fullerton, you'll find this delightful Algerian-style eatery. The walls are festooned with rugs and other North African gewgaws, and Arabic pop plays on a small boom box. The only giveaway that you're in Chicago is the annoying intermittent noise from the parking garage next door. A sign on the window says "Hot Crepes Day and Night," and indeed you can pretty much get any kind of crepe you can imagine. Dinner starts off with homemade soup, either roast chicken or vegetable, gently spiced and wonderfully porridgelike. My crepe was a heavenly spongy wedge bursting with fresh ingredients: mixed greens, caramelized onions, roasted garlic, toasted pine nuts, mozzarella, and merguez sausage. It was thoroughly satisfying by itself, but skipping dessert at a crepe place is like getting decaf at Intelligentsia. I went for one with raspberry jam and Belgian dark chocolate. It arrived drizzled with chocolate sauce and decked with a miniature drink umbrella atop a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Authentic Turkish coffee, served tableside, was a perfect complement. Prices are extremely reasonable. —Rob Christopher

Demera4801 N. Broadway | 773-334-8787

$$African | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

"Would you like something to drink?" asked the sweet-faced waitress. "Ethiopian beer, or some honey wine?" It was a reasonable question, and the wine, a goblet filled to the rim with sweet mead, was delicious. If only she had asked 20 minutes earlier—like, before we had ordered. This sort of ultimately inoffensive disorganization was typical of our dinner at Demera, an Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurant at Lawrence and Broadway, across from the Green Mill. Menus were slow to appear, actual food even slower, and I'm not actually sure we got everything we ordered. But the array of Ethiopian wats (stews) was creative and tasty, a notch above the neighborhood standard, Ethiopian Diamond up the street. The extensive menu features a wide range of traditional preparations of lamb, chicken, beef, and seafood, but we opted for the diners' choice vegetarian combo with a side of doro wat: two chicken drumsticks simmered with onions, garlic, and ginger and served with a hard-boiled egg in a thick, fiery berbere sauce. Presented on a platter lined with deliciously sour injera, the veggies included gomen (collard greens) and tikel gomen (cabbage and carrots) stewed in the same complex blend of onions, garlic, and ginger and served with fresh green pepper; shiro, a mild mix of legumes, ginger, rue seed, bishop's weed, and garlic; and the house specialty ye selit fitfit, a fluffy pile of injera bits flavored with roasted sesame, garlic, onions, and ginger. Hung with African art and set around the perimeter with little woven tables for two, the two rooms are warm and cheery. And there's an upside to the hit-or-miss service: you can linger as long as you want. —Martha Bayne

Ethiopian Diamond6120 N. Broadway | 773-338-6100

F 8.0 | S 6.9 | A 6.7 | $ (11 reports)African | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

rrr At this large, shabby-comfortable Edgewater storefront there are savory wats (stews) with beef, chicken, lamb, and fish, but vegetarians never need feel deprived. Vegan options include a spicy red lentil wat; yellow split pea watt; gomen (oniony collard greens); slightly sour tikil gomen (cabbage and carrots); and a mild wat made with potatoes and large chunks of carrot, all served on injera, the large, spongy pancake made with flour from teff, a tiny grain indigenous to Ethiopia. For appetizers there are sambusas, samosalike pastry triangles stuffed with meat or vegetables and served with lemon and a tamarind sauce. Meat dishes include the classic doro wat, chicken stewed in a spicy red sauce with a hard-boiled egg; kitfo, described on the menu as "Ethiopian steak tartare"; and tibs, cubes of various meats or seafood available in a range of preparations and spice levels. There are African beers, served in frosty mugs, and tej, Ethiopian honey wine; service too is honeyed. On Friday nights from 7 to 10 PM Chicago legend Kelan Phil Cohran, a cofounder of the AACM and a member of Sun Ra's band back in the day, dreamily plays jazz and ambient horn and harp to a synthesized backing. —Kate Schmidt

Grace African Restaurant4409 N. Broadway | 773-271-6000

$African | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations not accepted | Cash only

Grace African Restaurant looks less like a dining establishment than it does just a roomful of guys hanging out, arguing good-naturedly and occasionally shouting "Fix this man some nice food!" toward the kitchen. Each of the nine entrees, which include boiled yams or plantains with spinach stew and amala (dry yam) with okra, costs $8. The jollof rice with fish and meat stew consists of a very full plate of rice, spicy tomato-based stew over spaghetti noodles, sweet and heavy fried plantains, bony fried fish, and a shelled hard-boiled egg. Many customers eat the traditional Ghanaian way (i.e., with their right hands) and receive, along with their food, a bowl of water for washing up. —Anne Ford

Mama Desta's Red Sea3216 N. Clark | 773-935-7561

F 6.8 | S 5.6 | A 4.0 | $ (5 reports)African | Dinner: seven days

The standout dish on our injera-lined platter was the zighni, ground flank steak with onion, cumin, cardamom, and a whole lot of spicy red berbere sauce. I tend to find meat dishes at Ethiopian places overcooked and chewy—the yebeg (lamb) and doro alitchas (mild chicken stew) here were no exception—but I've found a favorite in zighni, which reminded me of Pakistani kheema. On the vegetable side, the metin shuro wat, a peppery, garlicky mash of yellow split peas, was a hit, but the bland bamyi (okra) and gomen (collard greens) went untouched. I asked for a tasting portion of the yasa wat, chunks of whitefish fried in onions, garlic, and berbere, and was genially offered a whole dish's worth on the house. We'd started with azzifah, a tangy, souplike dip of green beans and lentils with little tortilla squares for dipping, and ended with a dessert called Red Sea Cream, described on the menu as creamy pudding topped with honey and raspberry but tasting like sour cream topped with frozen raspberries. The tej, honey wine, was sweet enough to compensate though. —Tasneem Paghdiwala

Nefertiti Cafe3737 W. Lawrence | 773-866-1100

$$African | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Every night till at least 4 | BYO

By the time the janky Lawrence bus pulled up at this Albany Park Egyptian restaurant, the neon open sign was dead and the light was dimmed to a cavelike setting, but we glimpsed a few people smoking hookahs inside and figured we'd made it right before closing. Turns out we were early: Nefertiti gets going around midnight, when the cavernous room becomes a dance floor replete with DJs and belly dancers. Most of the menu items we wanted were unavailable—the focus is clearly on smoking and dancing—but what we got was well worth the rickety ride. My friend said her falafel and hummus on pita reminded her of a favorite Arab street vendor when she lived in Paris. The falafel was perfect—crisp, with a paper-thin batter, and green and creamy on the inside. The rice with my lamb shawarma was reminiscent of dishes at shisha parlors in Cairo: oily, salty with the taste of chicken broth, and topped with slivered almonds and brown Italian semolina. The shawarma itself was tough and stringy; most of our attention went to dipping warm, fluffy pita in hummus and ful madammas, warm mashed fava beans tart with lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil. Dessert was overly sweet baklava and bland rice pudding, but my karkade—sweet hibiscus tea, like the pomegranate drinks ubiquitous at Whole Foods—and the fruity tobacco smoke wafting across the room carried me to the end of the meal. —Tasneem Paghdiwala

Palace Gate4548 N. Magnolia | 773-769-1793

$$African | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Cash only | BYO

Palace Gate, Chicago's only all-Ghanaian eatery, is nothing if not authentic. While waiting for my food, the powerful tag-team smell of palm oil and dried fish brought me right back to that country. Hi-life tunes playing on the stereo and genuine Ghanaian hospitality served to strengthen the illusion. At the core of the cuisine is ampesi, intensely flavored stews or soups eaten with a starchy side like fufu, a firm, starchy dumpling made from plantains or cocoyam. Tomatoes, chile peppers, onions, and palm oil are the base for many stews, to which anything from turkey to beef to fish can be added. Jollof, spicy Ghanaian fried rice, is served with your choice of long-stewed beef or fried fish. Side dishes like plantains and beans help to round out the meal and extinguish the fire in your mouth. On weekends there are specials such as omo tuo (rice dumplings) and konkonte (dried cassava dumplings). There are no prices listed on the menu, and therefore no indication as to how much food you're ordering. Be assured that the portions are massive (fufu as big as your head!), and nearly all the dishes are a reasonable $10. Bottles of green hand soap are on every table if you decide to eat with your hands as the "locals" do. —Kristina Meyer

Ras Dashen Ethiopian Restaurant5846 N. Broadway | 773-506-9601

F 7.3 | S 6.9 | A 6.4 | $ (9 reports)African | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Every night till 11

The chef at Ras Dashen, Zenash Beyene, sets a welcoming table for carnivores and vegetarians alike (many items are designated vegan friendly). Here's the drill: wash hands (your primary eating utensils) and grab a mossab (short, colorful eating tables of woven fiber); then order an entree (meat, fish, or veg) and sides (such as mashed lentils, turmeric-spiked cabbage, and garlicky spinach) that go on top of spongy injera. There are some familiar items—traditional African veggies, such as okra and collards, are among American-style soul food standards. Unlike more stewlike mixtures we've enjoyed at other Ethiopian restaurants, here grilled meats stand out: lamb seared to scrumptious caramelization, fish crusted with light coconutty char, and beef dressed with piquant berbere sauce. The spice level on many menu items is rather mild, which enables you to savor fresh ingredients (like rosemary sprigs in the lamb, reflecting the influence of Italian colonizers, as do gelato and espresso). There are several African beers on offer—try Hakim, an Ethiopian stout with a creaminess that soothes the burn from hotter Ethiopian spices. Live music Wednesday and Friday nights. —David Hammond

Sunugal Restaurant2051 E. 79th | 773-721-5600

$African | Dinner: seven days | BYO

Sunugal's menu sparks a double take with selections like fettuccine Alfredo and paella listed side by side with Jamaican ackee and salt fish. Best to put your dining fate in the hands of Senegalese owner Tidiane "TJohn" Soumare; just say, "Please bring me whatever is lookin' good." With that request, TJohn quickly laid out some crusty-charred chunks of lamb on a mound of white rice and shrimp in a light tomato-based sauce—flavorful and well priced though not terrifically distinctive. We had better luck with jerk chicken: apparently butchered at random, these savory morsels delivered good chile burn with bursts of sweetness from golden bits of caramelized onion. Our grilled tilapia, moist and gently smoky, was complemented by cassava couscous (typical of southwestern Africa), and there were a number of traditional Senegalese platters coming out of the kitchen, including chicken Yassa (the bird simply marinated in lemon and onion) and jollof rice. Though TJohn was cool with the beers we brought, you'd do well to order his homemade drinks of ginger and sorrel, or perhaps milky bissap jus de bouye, derived from baobab. This friendly restaurant is an excellent place to practice your French (and how many places in Chicago offer that opportunity?). —David Hammond

Yassa African Caribbean Restaurant716 E. 79th | 773-488-5599

$$African, Caribbean | Lunch, dinner: seven days

Yassa is run by a family from Senegal, a former French colony whose cuisine, apart from fresh-baked pain française, bears little resemblance to anything European. We started with thiebu djen, a fish stewed in tomato with onion, cabbage, and jollof rice; the last is typically "broken" by soaking and pounding with the hands or the butt end of a bottle. Yassa is grilled marinated chicken covered with a sauce of mustard, onion, carrot, and palm oil and served on a bed of rice. Senegalese couscous is made from millet, which gives it a deep flavor that stands up to lamb and vegetables in a thick and creamy peanut sauce. Fish grilled whole over charcoal had a golden red, deliciously chewy crust and white, firm flesh; debe, grilled lamb chops, were also very flavorful. Be sure to try one of the marvelous homemade African beverages: gingembre is fresh ginger root, pounded and sugared in Yassa's kitchen, bouye is the creamy sweet juice of baobab fruit, and bissap is a gorgeous rich red liquor made from the hibiscus flower. There's also jerk and other Caribbean favorites on the menu. —David Hammond

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