Before the server even begins assembling your plate of food from the ten or so colorful pots behind the counter at new West African spot Teranga, you can sense this is no ordinary fast-casual restaurant.
Half of a wooden fishing boat from Senegal greets you at the entrance, and the walls of the airy space just inside the Africa Center are covered with graphic drawings by the Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk (they will be painted over once the exhibit ends).
Then there's the menu. Yes, it's simple, offering a limited number of market plates that allow you to match chicken, salmon or sweet potatoes with a base and a choice of two sides (plus a variety of not-to-be-missed fresh condiments at the end). But that's where much of the familiarity ends.
Fonio, a fluffy African grain, appears twice; there's also fufu, a West African staple made here with pounded plantains, and ndambe, a black eyed pea stew. A sublime drink called bouye is concocted from the fruit of Africa's iconic baobab tree.
Connecting people to the food of Africa is at the center of Teranga, which means "hospitality" in Wolof, a language of Senegal. Co-founder Pierre Thiam, a Senegalese-born chef who once ran the African restaurant Le Grand Dakar in Brooklyn, is a big part of that bridge.
The author of two cookbooks on Senegalese cuisine, Thiam is a convincing advocate of the type of grain-rich, light-on-protein dishes he calls "African grandma's cuisine." When it's prepared in the traditional style, he says, the West African diet is the most balanced in the world.
Investing in African farmers is also part of the story at Teranga. Co-founder Noah Levine, who lived in Senegal while working for a non-profit that engages youth through basketball, says the six-person team behind Teranga hopes to build relationships with growers who will supply the restaurant with African ingredients such as red rice, fonio, moringa, baobab fruit, and more.
Eventually, many of these items will be sold at a small food and crafts market that's coming to Teranga in the next few months. But for now, visitors will find plenty of exciting new flavors to explore, plus coffee from, yes, Africa. And occasionally African music in the evenings, too, organized by Teranga's landlord. As Thiam seems happy to confirm, "The Africa Center couldn't be a better collaborator."