A Taste of Sierra Leone (in Washington, D.C.)
Sumah is the name of the man who runs the place, a friendly, low-key guy from Sierra Leone. The shop, near Howard University, also sells CDs and DVDs. There are four or five tables, but it seems to be geared to take-out business. Indeed, when eating in you're served from takeout containers.
There were a few items I hadn't seen on other African menus, including potato leaves and cassava leaves. When I asked Sumah about the different dishes, he said, "I'll make you a plate and you can taste a little of everything." This was a free plate, mind you, and the menu does say "With an open mind we let you sample all of your dishes the first time you visit us." The plate he brought us didn't have everything on the menu, but I suspected it was everything he had that day. It consisted of jollof rice, okra, spinach, potato leaf, cassava leaf, peanut sauce, and tomato sauce. Any of the sauces can be ordered with beef, chicken, or fish. My friend and I tasted the various sauces and pretty much agreed that the cassava leaf and tomato sauce had the best combination of deliciousness and uniqueness. We ordered the cassava leaf with chicken and the tomato sauce with fish. The tomato stew was served over jollof rice and the cassava leaf was served over white rice. The menu was a little confusing, and it wasn't until after we ate that I realized that one could also order any of these stews with alternate starches, like couscous, fufu, or attieke (Ivorian grated cassava).
The dishes came in styrofoam takeout containers and were served with plastic forks. When we asked for spoons and knives, those items were metal. I think Sumah should consider investing in some plates and forks.
The cassava leaf was a puree and was mildly spicy. I'm not sure how to describe the taste. It wasn't quite a bitterness, more a mellow richness that went quite well with the chicken. It was mildly reminiscent of Indian chicken saag. The tomato sauce was also wonderful, a perfect match for the croaker fish (caveat: it's served with skin and bones). There was also a small amount of stewed beef along with the fish, so if you don't eat meat be sure to specify in advance. I can't put my finger on the spicing, but there was a liveliness of flavor to everything. The tomato stew was served with spinach on the side, a bonus I hadn't counted on. Another bonus was the order of fried sweet plantains that were either on the house or a side with something we ordered. Sumah's homemade ginger beer is an excellent beverage to accompany his food.
The food at Sumah's really is wonderful. An enormous portion of any sauce with your choice of meat over rice is $12. You can get a medium size for $10.50, but why bother for the small difference? If you live in D.C. it's probably a better bet to do takeout, but if you're visiting don't let the limitations in atmosphere put you off. Sumah's food has earned a permanent place in my taste memory.