Ever since I saw word of New York City's first Somali restaurant on Eating in Translation, I made plans to come up to Harlem to check it out. I have not traveled in the East of Africa yet, but I had one prior Somali meal in Toronto that I was pleased with and wanted to try more. The first time I tried was a Friday, so the place was naturally closed, my mistake.
West 116th Street is still known as Little Senegal, but doesn't feel at all like it once did. There are some West Africans that go to the Senegalese center a block away from Safari, but most of the restaurants have closed or moved, including Africa Kine, which ten years ago would have seemed unthinkable. It's building is covered in scaffolding, probably turning into trendy lofts for the people moving in and drastically changing this neighborhood. There is a lot of good writing out there documenting this change, if you are interested.
It is in this context that Safari opens, a bold move that has not gone unnoticed. As stated, it is the only place to get a taste of Somali food in New York City, so is worth a visit.
A scramble of Somali script covers one wall.
I have been here twice now, once alone, and once with a group of five. Both times I was treated like a VIP, the tall man in charge is constantly checking on things and making sure his customers are happy, a smile a constant feature of his face. The place runs a little slower than the New York standard, so make sure you set your internal clocks to African time before going. This kind of love takes time.
Up and down the east coast of Africa, the history of thriving trade throughout the Indian Ocean is evident with the spices and dishes of the subcontinent. A plate of the beef sambuusas ($8, below) is about the only regular starter they have, two fried triangles of beef and mint served with the ubiquitous bisbaas sauce. This meat is not quite as tasty as its Indian brother, but the garlic sauce is something you will come to love with every bite of your meal and is served with almost every dish.
I am always attracted to geography, so my first trip here alone could not find its way past a dish named for a city, the Mogadishu beef suqaar ($14, below). You can choose between rice and sabaaya, their name for Indian chapatti, but I seemed to be offered both and of course welcomed this. The extra sabaaya does show up as $2 on the final bill, but is the traditional accompaniment for stews like this and should not be overlooked.
The dish is also available in chicken form, the Kismaayo chicken suqaar ($14, below). Kismaayo is a port city even further south from Mogadishu, almost to the border with Kenya, near the mouth of the Jubba River. Here the spices are just a bit sharper on the bird which has been turned red, most likely from mitmita.
The first dish in the mains section of the menu is Hooyo Faduma's mango curry chicken ($16, below), a dish they seem to know will be popular with non-Somalis. We were all impressed by the pickled tastes here, with only a slight sweetness of fruit coming through the pureed mango sauce.
The busketti ($15, below) was ordered strictly for the chance to try whatever the "federation combo" was, which was promised to be served with the thin sliced flank steak. This combo seemed to be the vegetables in a creamy orange sauce underneath the steak, which can be mixed with the rice if desired, but otherwise not noteworthy unfortunately.
On my first trip here they had not prepared the hilib ari ($17, below), a roasted goat that takes many hours to prepare. It is worth the wait for lovers of goat though, the tender pieces and spices speaking as one voice on your tongue. The menu calls this the most popular Somali dish, speaking of the popularity of the animal back in the homeland, usually marinated and roasted for hours to create this powerful deliciousness.
It is no surprise that the sabaaya is used again for the taming of a sweet tooth. The malab iyo sabaaya ($6, below) is simple but tasty with sugar and honey, rolled tight for a dense bite.
I followed my second meal up here with a lunch visit to a Somali restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, a city that has seen a steady stream of Somali migration over the past decades. A section of the city has restaurants and services popping up for the people here, a change vastly different than the city of my youth. Here the rhythm of the meal seems more authentic, bananas and a small soup are brought out to each diner just as they are in Somalia, and the place is full of Somalis morning noon and night.
Along with those bananas, I only wish Safari would also serve canjeera, the bread similar to Ethiopian injera but less sour as it uses butter and milk. I also had the chance to try it in Columbus and really enjoyed the differences.