A cuisine that is amiss from my blog site, unfortunately, is from the African continent. The reasons are that I am slowly discovering the few establishments serving such cuisine that sparsely populate this area, and my ignorance of what that part of world offers gastronomically. Last year, I stumbled across a Ghanaian joint serving the popular Fufu (read blog), but it was just a mere foray into the wide spectrum of what African food is.
For a couple of years, I had been eyeing Chez Dior in the revitalized Hyattsville, MD neighborhood ever since I noticed its space was being renovated for the opening. Because of my suffering from amnesia and looking for the right dining companions to join me, I didn’t pay it my first visit until last month and after only being inspired by its favorable online ratings. Walking through its doors, the space seems more spacious than its real estate, partly due to the glass storefront and the other being its high ceilings. One wall is stuffed with a few banquet seating, while tables fill up the rest of the space. Settling in, I felt comfortable and welcomed right away, while anticipating a new adventure into gastronomic terra incognito. Our drink orders of Hibiscus (Bissap) and Ginger Juice were the perfect openers to the house’s offering. The bissap had hints of a slight sour tannin zing tempered by some fruit juice while exuding an interesting flowery note. The ginger juice was close to pure ginger root but sweetened with a touch of pineapple juice, biting enough to wake up my senses and attack the sore throat I was nursing. I would forgo a glass of water and order these alluring thirst quenchers with my meals due to their exotic qualities.
From the appetizer section of the menu, I recognized Beignets that I had eaten at some Cameroonian homes, and oddly, Vietnamese Spring Rolls (the result of Senegalese soldiers bringing wives back from the Indochinese war) which I noticed were properly made with rice sheets, not egg roll wrapper, and served with a fish sauce mixture. However, I honed in on a couple of more authentic offerings. The first was Fattaya. The fried pastries arrived beautifully pleated (as well as my grandmother’s curry puffs), and greaseless to the touch. One bite into the flaky dough was revelatory. It was not made with tuna as listed on the menu, but with minced beef and bits of onions. The level of savory moisture encapsulated by the pastry pointed to the bites made a la minute, which my companion and I appreciated while we quickly devoured these small bites. The other appetizer was equally delectable – Accra. The small dough balls are made from black eye pea flour and served with a spicy tomato sauce. Biting into them, they had a clean taste from being perfectly fried in fresh oil, and the inside was amazingly quite light while giving off a soft corn bread texture affected by some proper seasoning. The zesty sauce tasted freshly made, and it added the right amount of tomato sweetness and some spice to each bite. I would not miss these two openers with my meal as they would build up some anticipation as they did at my table.
Playing it safe one night, I ordered an often-heard and popular dish – Jollof Rice. The plate arrived with some baked chicken, a mound of brown-hued rice, and accompanied by a side of carrot, cabbage, and boiled cassava/yucca. The chicken tasted well-marinated and baked just right without being dry or falling apart too easily. The star ingredient was the rice with broken grains that had a texture of bulgur wheat (not only a Vietnamese specialty), seasoned by the chicken sauce and some savoriness from Maggi sauce (verified by the owner). However, it could have done some chili heat that I have tasted in some versions. The side vegetables were very satisfactory with the carrots and cabbage cooked soft and exuding their vegetal sweetness, but unfortunately, the cassava was slightly undercooked in the middle. On another night, we ordered Yassa Chicken. Pieces of chicken came grilled and tasted slightly tangy from the lemon-based marinate, and sweetened by some caramelized onions. My dining companions were devouring the pieces due to the flavors and the grilled preparation. The dishes were well-prepared and tasty, just perhaps a bit safe in my mind, as I was seeking some gustatory adventure.
Based on some online reviewers’ recommendations, I decided to try Thiebou Diene, a traditional Senegalese dish. The plate arrived filled with a stewed fish steak, the usual accompanying stewed vegetables, and a mound of red-colored rice. Biting into the fish, I was appreciating the savoriness from the slow cooking and the slight firmness of the fish meat which exuded a richness which I was trying to ascertain – it turned out to be the rich Kingfish usually found in the Caribbean, which was not the usual house offering (no complaints here). The rice was equally savory, having absorbed all the savory goodness from the fish and vegetable stew, which each spoonful was beckoning us for more. I can see why this is the house’s signature dish due to the flavors and well preparation. Caldou was the other fish order that night. A whole tilapia fish has been marinated, grilled, and slathered with a sauce. Usually not one for the muddy flavors of this type of fish, I didn’t mind it that much with this order due to its flavors from the marination and grilling, and the tangy onion-mustard sauce. With these dishes, I was whisked away to the West African coast and they are definitely high on the list.
The final main course was Dibi. Pieces of grilled marinated lamb chops arrived with a choice of side, steamed Couscous in this case. One bite into the meat reminded me of eating lamb chops as a child. The flavors were spot on due to the proper marination, heightened by a stay on the grill that gave the charred notes to the rich meat. The chops were quite thin, which made them not as moist as some would have like them to be, but I didn’t mind it at all since I grew up with these prepared this way. The side of onion-mustard sauce not only added the moist element to the meaty bits but also notes of sweet tang. The couscous was adequate but lacking some seasoning or the use of stock to elevate the grain to a more interesting mouthful. But it didn’t deter me from that pieces of meat that just sang beautifully with each bite.
Finally, I have found an establishment that serves African cuisine that does justice to it. The place may be a bit small, but it makes up with its warm sense of hospitality and the well-presented dishes that exude full flavors and proper cooking each one received, a sign of care and attention that would elevate any dish – this was evident in both appetizers, the grilled chicken, both fish dishes, and the grilled lamb chops. All my dining companions, as well as I, were immediately impressed by this house’s offerings, and we will be coming back for more.