When I was in the Peace Corps in Kenya, I wasn't particularly excited by the food. The national staple is ugali, a maize-and-millet-based paste that's used to scoop up other things, such as sukuma wiki (iron-packed greens that translate from Swahili as "push the week"—because they have enough nutrition to push you for a week) or nyama choma (roasted meat). None of it was especially flavorful, which is probably why you see plenty of Ethiopian restaurants around, but very few Kenyan ones. But like Proust's beloved madeleines, Kenyan food came to symbolize a particular time in my life and I have come to seek it out. So when I heard that a new African restaurant was opening on Charles Street, I was anxious to try it. Not surprisingly, the food is not Kenyan, but it's not Ethiopian either. The chef, Mina, explained that it's a combination of cuisines from West Africa, which don't have much in common with East African food.
Mina apparently used to have a popular stall at the Charles Market nearby. The large space she moved into on an otherwise-not-commercial block of offices between Fayette and Lexington feels a bit dark and unfinished, but is brightened by Mina's kids scampering around during lunchtime and the friendly staff. The restaurant offers breakfast and lunch, as well as dinner with live music on the first Friday of every month, but the lunch buffet, available Thursday though Sunday, is an excellent value ($12 including a drink) and introduction to the menu. The buffet had plenty of familiar staples, such as rice and plantains—the latter exceedingly sweet and delicious—but the best flavors were unfamiliar Senegalese dishes. Among them was tiebou yap, a really flavorful savory jasmine rice with meat and corn, and chicken yassa, which was covered in a thick, sweet sauce made with lemon and onions. I'm not exactly sure where the peanut butter chicken comes from, but its thick glaze was amazing. There were also chicken and beef crepes, a marker of France's colonial legacy in West Africa. And if you're feeling ambitious, down at the end of the buffet are enormous lamb shanks that look like they were parachuted in from "The Flintstones." While the options for African cuisine in Baltimore are growing, most of them—Dukem, Tabor, Ebenezer—are Ethiopian (if you're looking for Kenyan food, Swahili Village in Beltsville is your best bet, and it's great), so it's good to see West African flavors represented so proudly and deliciously. Totally worth seeking out. (Evan Serpick)