There are a lot of secrets in the kitchen at Gorée Cuisine, a new Senegalese restaurant in Kenwood. There are secrets in the soupe khandje, a thick stew of lamb neck, red snapper, and okra that is the most elemental and forthright expression of surf and turf I’ve ever encountered. There’s a secret going in the Senegalese omelets the cafe is planning to serve during breakfast. And there are some very old secrets in the tiebu djeun, a sort of West African paella revered as the national dish of Senegal, which accepts a multitude of interpretations but demands that one firm rule be obeyed:
“You have to use some secret ingredients that your grandma created,” owner Adama Ba says.
According to Ba, secret ingredients are a staple at Gorée Cuisine, which opened in late October, shortly before the lizard people took over, as the third restaurant in the city cooking the food of a country whose links to certain foods of the African-American south are so clear and direct you can taste them.
The tiebu djeun that Adama’s grandma made was the one that’s currently served in the family’s restaurant, Chie Nene, on Île de Gorée, a 45-acre island and one of the 19 communes d’arrondissement of Dakar, just off that city’s eastern coastline. Gorée is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the role it played in the Atlantic slave trade, so Ba and his siblings served countless orders of their grandma’s tiebu djeun to tourists from all over the world long before he came to the U.S. as a designer who opened his own clothing store, Gorée Shop, some 15 years ago in the space next door. He was there to pounce when Zaleski & Horvath MarketCafe closed and the space opened up. “I saw the opportunity and said, ‘We need to have a Senegalese restaurant,'” he says.
So Adama, his older sister Fatou, and younger brother Djibi went into business, offering outsourced pastries, coffee, and tea in the morning and, at lunch and dinner, the hearty, deeply flavorful food of their home—food that could have only evolved through the decades upon decades of international colonialism, commerce, and slavery. Africans, Arabs, the French, the Portuguese, and even the Vietnamese have made some contribution to the food of Senegal.
At Gorée Cuisine, all three siblings contribute to the cooking, which means a fixed number of permanent dishes on the menu and a few rotating “dishes of the day,” each requiring a good five to six hours of preparation. You might get lucky one day and find they’ve got the spicy fish meatball thiou boulette on hand. Another might feature dakhine—lamb, rice, and beans stewed in peanut sauce—or tiebu djeun itself, fish stuffed with parsley and onion, cooked down for hours with cabbage, carrots, and rice in tomato, with a seasoning paste of dried fish and hot peppers that lay a salty marine funk at the bass line of the dish. A more deconstructed “house” version of tiebu djeun is available daily, featuring a whole tilapia scored and deep-fried or grilled to preference, and joloff rice—jambalaya’s West African antecedent.
Yassa, perhaps Senegal’s second-most prominent dish, is a protein such as fish or chicken cooked down in onions and mustard—and perhaps most familiar to south-siders as the name of Chicago’s first Senegalese restaurant. (Rogers Park’s Badou was the second.) At Gorée yassa is available with lamb, whole fish, shrimp, or chicken, each appearing smothered in sweetly caramelized onions with the occasional green olive.
The tendency to mingle land and sea creatures is repeated again with saka saka—shrimp, crab, and lamb in braised cassava leaves—which resembles Caribbean callaloo and is given another hint of the umami-boosting preserved fish found in the aforementioned soupe khandji. These substantial, stewy dishes are often lubricated with palm oil, which necessitates ample amounts of white rice to absorb them. That applies to the mild, vaguely sweet lamb curry and the maffe, fatty lamb and root vegetables cooked down in a tomato-peanut sauce that will resonate with anyone regularly nourished by peanut butter in their formative years.
Finally, there’s a remarkable dessert available at Gorée, one that foreshadows the Ba family’s plans to introduce a number of porridgelike dishes at breakfast. Called thiakry, it’s a mildly sweet and tart mixture of sour cream, yogurt, raisins, shredded coconut, and tiny grains of millet, scented with barely a hint of orange water. It’s a refreshing, restorative way to end a generous meal at Gorée, but a more demanding sweet tooth might be satisfied by a glass of bouye juice, made from the baobob fruit and tasting like a mash up of coconut, lychee, and pineapple. More assertive drinks such as the pineapple-and-ginger gingembre and the tart hibiscus bissap are on hand, as well as deep cups of mint tea overflowing with fresh herbs and imported Café Touba, sweet coffee brewed with peppery grains of selim, aka Guinea pepper.
The food at Gorée might seem unfamiliar on paper, but it bridged the Atlantic hundreds of years ago with the arrival of the first African-Americans. Senegalese cuisine is, in essence, soul food—something that’s not so secret after all. v