In the South Bronx, there are many train lines and access to many of its restaurants is terrifically easy, from Manhattan at least. Somewhere in the middle of all these lines, and about as far of a walk in the area as can be taken, lies Nabaya Restaurant in the former home of Bate, a very popular Guinean joint. While the name and ownership has changed, if you did not have the ability to read it would all appear the same. The plates available are on par, and even a big photo of a rickety wooden walking bridge, presumably in Guinea, survived the handover.
The atmosphere has not changed either, the shades are drawn and on a sunny day the only way to know what is inside the dark interior is to open the door. Plastic covers the gold tablecloths, CNN plays on the TV nonstop, and the customers seem satisfied with the change of chefs. Bate was one of those places that encouraged groups to make their way up to the Bronx for meals, as it always gathered plenty of accolades, but Nabaya Restaurant might even be a step up.
A group of us came one chilly winter night and were supremely satisfied. Our happiness poured out of our seats after the meal to talk up the owner and learn more about the place. She is from Guinea and employs chefs from Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso, West African countries that share borders, the French language, and many parts of their cuisines. Since we had let her pretty much select our large meal, we had plenty to thank her for afterwards.
Things started arriving at our table at a fast clip, and at least half of us were scrambling for photos before all the forks and spoons of hungry people descended on the dishes. First up was Senegal's national dish, thiébou dienne (below), fish and jollof rice served with a couple stewed vegetables. The key here is the find the right mixture of heat from the accompanying sauce and pepper. My time in Senegal taught me to treat that pepper with respect, as one could adequately (read: intensely) spice three dishes this size. The dish turned out to be fairly dry, the only negative marks for the entire meal.
Many oohs and ahhs came from bites of the potato leaf (below), a dish of smoky greens cooked with innards and skin. This stew would more easily be eaten with fou fou or something similar, but we did not order any of these starches so that our stomachs could use all the room for main courses.
The Guinea fowl (below) may not be the best dish for sharing, as portions of meat are thin, but would be perfect for a solo lunch on a return visit. Another bowl of stew that would be better with a starch ball (eating lessons here), we took it again with rice so that eight pairs of hands were not diving into one bowl of the tomato-based stew.
The first plate to arrive with their delicious mustard onion sauce was the grilled chicken (below, not certain about the name of this dish), cooked to perfection with crispy skins. For anyone that is not a lover of the ubiquitous offal that finds its way into many West African dishes, this is a perfect start. For anyone who is, order it anyways.
Or try one of the other dishes smothered in that mustard onion sauce, including the lamb shanks (below), a heavenly dish with meat that peels so easily off the bones. The generous portions at the restaurant make trying many items hard for small groups, so at this point I was thankful for the large table.
Our mustard onion sauce party could not have been complete without the dibi (below), grilled goat marinated in heaven. Sharing the dish with a large group became a problem here as I had to limit my gluttony, but an order to go made for an excellent midnight snack and breakfast.
A slightly different onion sauce was served with the fish (below, yes it was just called fish). Coastal West Africa is full of delicious fresh catch, so never avoid letting a talented West African chef grill up a whole fish for you. This tilapia could not have been nicer.
With our Senegalese and Guinean bases covered, an order of Ivorian acheke (below) arrived to shake up the way we combined our bites. This simple dish is not dissimilar to couscous, but made with fermented cassava grains that are toasted. The chopped up pepper is once again to be feared, so do proceed with caution when applying it to your bites. The dust of maggi is an authentic/interesting addition, but not to my tastes.
I completely forget the story of why noodles were on our table.
Washed down with bottles of their fresh (and very sweet) bissap and (very spicy) ginger juices, our meals sat in our bellies, turning over and over on their way to be digested. It was about all we could muster to get out of our chairs and walk back the many blocks to the subway.
Nabaya Restaurant is their for you now, head north for dinner sometime soon.