Most West African restaurants in Manhattan south of 110th Street have been steam-table affairs. The food is sold by the pound, and even though a broad range of dishes from Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Nigeria can be selected, along with pan-national standards like jollof rice, they often have a generic quality and prove less highly seasoned than usual. In a pinch, these places give a good general picture of the entire subcontinent, but the food is never as compelling as in restaurants devoted to individual cuisines in Harlem, Jamaica, University Heights, Soundview, or Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Which is why the advent of Voilà Afrique two months ago on East 45th Street, just uphill from the United Nations headquarters, was so welcome. For the counter-service establishment that it is, the rusticated stone facade seems rather lavish. But inside, you’ll find the usual cash register area where orders are taken and dispensed, and to the left of that a counter behind which cooks can be seen at work.
The name means “here is Africa” in French, which suggests the menu might represent Francophone countries like Senegal and Guinea. But owner George Quainoo is from Ghana and chef Margarete Duncan from Nigeria, both English-speaking countries with cuisines distinct from Francophone ones. “Why the French name?” I asked Quainoo one day. “It sounded sophisticated,” he said with a wry smile.
Indeed, the bill of fare presents dishes from both Ghana and Nigeria. Each country has a cuisine that often begins with a mashed starch such as pounded white yam. Here, it comes rolled into a warm white ball cloaked in plastic wrap. The flavor is mild, like mashed potatoes, but there the similarity ends. Its texture is wondrously rubbery, so that if you dropped it on the ground, it might bounce. The mash is eaten by plucking off a wad and dipping it into a separately ordered sauce, which is sometimes thin like a soup, and sometimes chunky like a stew. And that’s how to approach Voilà Afrique: Pick a starch and then a sauce to go with it.
Most of the four mash choices ($6.50 each) are handed over the counter identically shaped and wrapped, including plantain fufu and ugali — made from cornmeal, and usually associated with Kenya, though it’s apparently admired in Nigeria. If you prefer strong flavors, the best mash is kenkey. Also made from cornmeal, it is shaped like a flattened cylinder and comes wrapped in corn husks like a tamale, and has been aged until it becomes super funky, making sourdough bread and injera seem tame by comparison. I’ve heard this mash is favored by Ghanaian fishermen, who claim it sticks with you on long coastal fishing trips better than the less-assertive mashes.
Ready for your sauce ($8.99 each)? Foremost to me looms egusi, common to both Nigeria and Ghana. Made from crushed melon seeds and collard greens, the thick sauce attains an arresting appearance, looking something like finely scrambled eggs. It would be good enough as is, but the chef throws in some smoked mackerel too, which intensifies the flavor and provides some surprising solid parts in the choppy green sea of the sauce.
In most West African restaurants, peanut butter stew contains lamb, chicken, or a shifting catalog of proteinaceous substances called mixed meat, which might include stockfish, cowfoot, chicken, mutton, or oxtail. At Voila Afrique, though, the sauce is vegetarian, displaying the modern tendency on the part of restaurants to offer dishes aimed at vegetarians and the gluten-sensitive.
Meat or not, the peanut butter stew is delicious, eaten with one of the above-mentioned mashes or poured over one of the rices (white, coconut, and jollof, all $6.50). If you wondered in what form the peanuts made their way into this West African soup, cast your eyes toward the counter in front of the kitchen, where the chef’s raw materials are displayed. There you’ll spy two jars of Skippy proudly exhibited. Palm oil and other flavors improve the sauce, so it tastes better than the usual peanut butter sandwich. “I like the smoothness Skippy gives the sauce,” the chef told me.
But when meat is called for, Voilà Afrique responds. The oxtail stew is chock full of bone-in cross sections, causing you to abandon any plasticware you may have been using and depend on your fingers to salvage the trapped morsels. Meanwhile, the goat stew, often available in mild and spicy versions, tastes more fundamentally West African, with a pungency underpinned by tomatoes and chiles. It is excellent, particularly when co-ordered with the egusi (though really only one mash and sauce are needed), so that the two may be eaten together by alternately dipping your mash in each.
There are a handful of dishes that could function as shared apps or snacks, and also a few recurring specials. Among starters, find beef suya ($8.99). These grilled kebabs served sans skewers are associated with northern Nigeria, and probably originated in the Middle East. They arrive interspersed with shards of white onion and dusted with chiles and powdered peanuts, placing them among the hottest things on the menu. If you’re ordering a meaty sauce as well, though, you may be overwhelmed.
Specials include an African version of fish and chips that I haven’t tried yet ($5.49) and, on Saturdays only, a red snapper fried whole that might have been half of the Ivory Coast national dish of fish and athieke, a dish featuring a fish rubbed with spices, fried head and tail intact, and then served over a manioc stodge something like white, slightly sour couscous. To get the whole dish, though, you’ll have to go to an Ivory Coast restaurant.
Here, though, the menu rarely strays, remaining resolutely Ghanaian and Nigerian. This matters for the outstanding mashes, which are underrepresented in steam-table places, and for suya and kenkey, which are almost never found outside of Nigerian and Ghanaian restaurants. In Voilà Afrique, Manhattan is gaining a deeper taste of the cooking of these African countries.