Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Falling in Love with Florence's

A West African restaurant in Harlem was the site of my most memorable dining experience of recent months, and for more than just the food.

Florence's, at 2099 8th Avenue, near 113th Street, serves the cuisines of Ghana and neighboring Ivory Coast. The foods of these countries have similarities with other West African cuisines, like Senegalese and Togonese, such as the use of peanut sauces, fermented grains and fufu (the glutinous, gooey cassava & plantain-starch thingy that can be best described as a blob), but there are also national specialties.

The family that runs the restaurant is Anglophone Ghanaian. It's a small, cozy place and the proprietors are a delight. The atmosphere was enlivened by the great music ranging from vintage highlife to contemporary African hip hop as well as the cute kids, clearly all of the family, ranging from toddler to adolescent, hanging out, chatting and playing. It was like being a guest in their home, and we indeed felt like guests. For me this is a great restaurant experience: to feel like a guest rather than a customer.

Our waiter was very helpful with explanations and suggestions. For an appetizer we had kelewele, small cubes of ripe plantain with hot pepper, ginger and other spices, fried until they get a slightly caramelized coating. The kelewele, apparently a very popular Ghanaian street food, was absolutely addictive.

The majority of the dishes are soups and stews, served with your choice of meat and grain. We had a peanut soup with goat meat, with fufu on the side. For me this was the least successful dish, though the goat was tasty and not at all gamey. I found the peanut soup a bit on the bland side, and I'd forgotten that I'm not fond of the consistency of fufu. As I review the menu, however, I'm not sure whether we were served the Ivorian arachide or the Ghanaian peanut butter soup.

We had the Ivorian okra soup/stew (gombo: does that sound familiar?), with chicken. The dish is long cooked until the okra melts down and creates a thick soup with the broth and spices. I noticed a familiar flavor component reminiscent of some Malaysian dishes, and confirmed with the waiter that it was indeed dried shrimp. Overall the gombo had an interestingly smoky, slightly spicy, slightly funky flavor.

Without a doubt the highlight was the attieke poisson braisse, whole tilapia, perfectly prepared, topped with onions, tomatoes and peppers, and served with a wonderful, incendiary hot pepper sauce known as shito. Attieke is a starch made from fermented, grated cassava that went very well with the fish. Unlike many of the other sides, which are found all over West Africa, attieke is very specific to Ivory Coast.

Poisson Braisse with Shito

Florence's was a huge hit with my dining companions Peter Wortsman, who is never miserly with his enthusiasm, and Jill Schoolman, Peter's publisher from Archipelago Books. This time I was trumped in the travel department, as both of them had spent time in Africa.

Florence's is a B.Y.O. place, and if I remember correctly our tab came out to under $15 per person. Most dishes are in the $9-10 range, and the wonderful kelewele is $3 an order.

I love Florence's. I want to hang out there again. I want to try everything on the menu. I want to take all my friends.


Blogger Barefoot in Blue said...

Being a Ghanaian girl raised here in the states, the food mentioned have been in my diet since I was in utero; it was a delight to read your experiences, I can "fondly' remember my brother sneaking shito into my food and my wailing in oral flames...ooo, good times!

I must say my favorite dish on the planet is my father's peanut butter soup with goat and fufu, I can eat it for every meal for the rest of my life! I will be sure to check out Florence's to see if they can mastch his magic!

Thanks for sharing =)

2:26 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

Hey, thank you for sharing too!

10:52 AM  
Blogger nick said...

Anyone Know how to prepare ABLO? My neighbor is from TOGO and someone made it but he isnt sure how. A little sweet YUM!
I have the inggredients but dont have how much water, or method. I also hear I may need a double boiler? Or is it a steamer?
thanks, Nick

1:39 PM  
Blogger Iwalani said...

Next time you go, try the light soup--a tomato based soup laden w/ palm oil, chilis, and cooked w/ chicken. I prefer it poured atop cassava fufu or the kenkey [the spicy and sour are delicious together]...

Reading your post brings me back to when I had worked in Ghana several years ago...and recently I have been craving the food, so I am excited to read this and venture to Florence's to satisfy my cravings ^_^ Thanks for your insight!

3:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After spending nearly a year in Ghana I became highly addicted to the food and go through periodic intense cravings for the spicy deliciousness!

Eating at Florence's was such a delight, I could of easily closed my eyes and fully believed I was back in Ghana.

If you don't like the consistancy of Fufu I highly reccommend Banku, my personal favorite which has the same starchy, fermented taste but unlike Fufu you can actually chew it.

Looking forward to a trip to NYC from my home in North Carolina in a couple of weeks and Florence's will definitely be my first stop!

2:15 PM  

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