Love, labor, loss
Reflections on Dakar NOLA
Inventive chefs pride themselves on fiddling with guests’ expectations when they write tasting menus. It’s nearly a professional obligation to switch up techniques so potatoes are smoked instead of roasted, and to swap out ingredients so what looks like chicken soup is really chawanmushi.
But the order in which dishes are served is sacrosanct. Light before heavy; savory before sweet; first before last.
Except at Dakar NOLA, the suave modern Senegalese restaurant which opened this past November in uptown New Orleans. There, what’s labeled as “Last Meal” is the first dish that diners encounter.
Five courses follow, including a heap of tomato-rich jollof shaded by pepper and a platoon of partially shelled shrimp, their heads swamped with tart tamarind sauce for the sucking. Dakar NOLA’s chef and co-owner, Serigne Mbaye—the 28-year-old son and nephew of two Senegal-born chefs who shaped the West African food scene in New York City—is intent on mining areas where the foodways of Senegal and south Louisiana overlap.
Among his rich bounty is a plush, palm oil-inflected bread that’s kin to a Parker House roll, and a dazzlingly bright fonio salad, with its dust of defining nutty millet punctuating diced apples, satsumas, and finger limes. Continuing explorations he began on a pop-up basis while serving as chef de cuisine of Mosquito Supper Club, Mbaye has come up with the loveliest wedge of red snapper, girded by a substantial mustard onion sauce that tastes as if it could only be made by someone wearing a toque.
Yet none of those preparations can quite dislodge the deliciousness of “Last Meal” from Dakar NOLA guests’ memories.
At least that’s what eaters across the dining room said enthusiastically when servers challenged them to pick the evening’s best bite. Servers responded with unsurprised nods, with one adding that the black-eyed-pea-and-crab soup, textured with crisp bits of rice and slick with palm oil, has emerged as the clear “fan favorite.”
Mbaye didn’t use that kind of shorthand in his welcoming remarks. As he explained at the outset, the recipe for “Last Meal” was devised to mimic the preparation of beans that enslavers fed to captured Africans before their transatlantic passage. It was supposed to fatten them up so the slave traders’ monetary investment wouldn’t wither and die.
That’s a harrowing, but necessary, place to start a conversation about connections between the coasts of West Africa and the Southern U.S. Mbaye deserves credit for not shying away from the central tragedy of enslavement, and for endeavoring to reclaim a culturally meaningful ingredient that was perverted by oppressors. What’s sloshing about the bowl is a satisfying power shift that shows Dakar NOLA’s potential.
Unfortunately, Mbaye’s ability to shake up existing narratives may ride on whether edible art consumers want more out of a high-end experience than sensuous pleasure and Instagram likes. Right now, it seems like those who can afford a $150 dinner ticket would rather purchase a shield from white guilt than a deeper understanding of it.
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