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Into Africa

African Cuisine and Moya offer two forays into intriguing finger food

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Fufu, to my ears, is one of the culinary world's great onomatopoetic misnomers. It sounds like a word that disdainful American foodies might toss around to describe pretentious architectural plating in restaurants: "Jesus, could that chef be any more fufu with those fronds of rosemary sticking up everywhere?"

But to West Africans, fufu is the sound of Mama's cooking, and it succinctly sums up the food that Patience Johnson serves at her 4-month-old African Cuisine.

"Would you like to wash your hands now?" asks Johnson, as she sets a plate of fufu - which is actually white yam pounded to a consistency somewhere between dumplings and mashed potatoes - and stew in front of me.

I examine my fingers. Is she questioning my hygiene?

Johnson laughs. "This is a dish you eat with your hands," she says. She explains: You snatch a piece of fufu, roll it into a ball about the size of a walnut, flatten it slightly and use it to scoop up some of the egusi stew, made with ground melon seeds and greens. The fufu's creamy yet pliant texture melds with the nutty, meaty potage dyed orange from palm oil. It's messy going until you get the hang of it. I slosh quite a bit of stew onto my tray.

African foods don't get a whole lot of play in this country, and homey West African even less so than counterparts from the east and north. But for ethnic adventurers who've thoroughly explored Atlanta's prolific Latin and Asian eateries, the tastes of Africa may offer some still-foreign diversions.

African Cuisine is located in one of the limbo shopping centers between Clairmont and Shallowford on Buford Highway, and were it not for the large black and white sign, you'd have a hard time finding it - even in the strip mall. It's next door to an auto shop, and the parking lot is constantly clogged with cars, all but obscuring the modest "Open" sign in the restaurant's window.

Inside, a strip of wallpaper winds around the room, invoking the Serengeti with a scene of zebras and lions grazing in the sun. It's a clean, simple space: fake palms, a few comfortable booths and a soda machine where you grab your own drinks.

The menu is small, and Johnson doesn't make everything on the list daily, so the first order of business is to ascertain what's available. If she hasn't prepared the egusi and fufu, then she's probably whipped up okra stew. The lithe strands of okra have simmered so long they bypass slimy and slide right into silky. A haunting smoky quality inhabits each bite.

The downside is that the stew is made with ropes of beef that lend flavor but are so sinewy they're inedible. The egusi is made with the same meat. I've learned to just set these shreds aside and pour the okra stew over the abundant hillock of rice that comes on the side.

Peanut butter soup sounds like a dreamed-up childhood concoction, but the spicy, complex stew has more in common with curry than chunky Jif. And happily the beef in this dish is seductively tender.

The first time I walked in, Johnson appraised me and advised that I should try the fried fish. It's a dish that connects the culinary dots from Africa to the Caribbean: Moist, whole fried fish is served with a juicy saute of peppers, tomatoes and onions, paired with hunks of sweet, soft plantains. Johnson uses tilapia, which is easy to navigate without getting a mouthful of bones.

About as many customers take-out as eat-in, and the restaurant can have long quiet stretches in the afternoon. It was completely still one visit, until Johnson came out from the back and turned on Star 94. She disappeared again and I hummed along with James Ingram and Spandau Ballet while I waited for my fufu, happy to have discovered this sweet retreat that's ideal for a little something different at lunchtime.

Ethiopia's spongy flatbread, injera, takes notably less skill to wield than fufu, and Atlanta has a few solidly reliable Ethiopian restaurants scattered about, including Meskerem and Queen of Sheba. Moya, housed in the ethnically diverse restaurant row on Clairmont and North Decatur where Indian Bhojanic and Mexican Ricardo's also reside, has been on the scene a little over a year. It strives to set itself apart from the crowd with a contemporary edge.

Moya's windows are tinted black like other Ethiopian eateries around town, but unlike the others, it takes interior decorating beyond the posters of Ethiopia provided by the tourist board. The place gleams with dark, polished wood, and a central cabinet displays goblets and gourds and other African knickknacks.

Here's a tip I find applicable to Ethiopian spots in general and Moya in particular: Skip the starters and head straight into the finger food fest. I learned this the hard way.

Liyu Moya, described as spicy, lightly fried cauliflower and zucchini, sounds like a fine way to start a meal. But when our pubescent server plops it on the table, I ask him what the yellow dip is in the center of the plate. "Honey mustard," he replies. Right. The vegetables have the distinct greasy yet raw smack that signals they were cooked in oil that wasn't hot enough. And the sauce, straight from Africa by way of Applebee's, doesn't improve matters.

Sambussas, pastries filled with chile-spiked lentils or ground beef, suffer the same sebaceous fate. One oil-soaked bite makes a lasting impression.

Discouraged, I suspiciously eye our main courses as they arrive. Then I catch a scent of the bewitching fragrances and melt. I'm always a champion of Ethiopian vegetable combo plates, and Moya's reminds me why. Our server spoons buttery collards, lentils burnished dark crimson from exotic spices, gently seasoned yellow split peas and satiny cabbage with carrots and potatoes onto a central platter covered with injera.

He dips into an earthen pot and retrieves the classic components of doro wat: A chicken leg and a hard-boiled egg covered in an ebullient sauce flavored with berbere, a spice mixture akin to India's garam masala that includes cumin, ground ginger and cardamom. The sauce is the best part, meant to be greedily sopped up with the injera you use as a utensil to eat everything in front of you.

I've had good luck with lamb here, either skewered as a shish kebab or diced into small chunks and sauteed with onions and tomatoes. The menu's one fish offering, which changes daily, is another story. It was grouper on the night I tried it. When my friends and I took a bite, our eyes glazed over as faraway memories flooded our brains. It tasted exactly like the Arthur Treacher's fish we ate in the '70s. Their 3-year-old loved it.

Despite its ups and downs, Moya is an excellent answer to the age-old question of where to go for a cheap and compelling weeknight dinner, particularly if you're in the mood for meat-free fare, or chicken that hasn't been cooked on a fast-food rotisserie. And it's great for kids. When my chums were showing their child how to eat her collards with the injera, she cocked her head, puzzled. "No fork?" she asked. That's right, this is one cuisine where we get to chuck the stodgy rules of Western decorum right out the window.

bill.addison@creativeloafing.com

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