AFCC: Great Food Hidden In Plain SightAug 23rd, 2012 | By Guest Author | Category: Eatsboro
Recently something had been bothering me. I’ve just felt strangely and subtly uncomfortable. It always seemed to come on as I was walking down Greene to my cooking job on Elm. I just figured that I was sick of doing kitchen prep or wishing I had time to work for the Obama campaign. Wrong. Suddenly it hit me: that feeling was guilt. I had been walking past a new downtown restaurant every day without giving it so much as a second glance.
Okay, I guess I could forgive myself for the oversight: new eateries spring up almost weekly in the 20-block radius that makes up my neighborhood. They pop up like pimples, slinging well-done burgers, “craft beer” and chicken that is as over-sauced as it is overpriced (looking your way, Natty’s). It took me a while before I realized this place is different. This is an African Restaurant, not on High Point Rd., not on the East Side but downtown. It’s been a while since I didn’t need to catch a bus to eat something that’s not drunk food or thirty bucks a dish (or both). So a couple of days ago I got my head out of my ass, gathered some friends and went to see what was up.
Whenever I go to a new restaurant I like to bring as many people as possible. This allows me to try a bunch of dishes without seeming like a complete glutton. Well, sucks for me, because that night I could only get 3 other people to come, but for my meager crew of aspiring culinarians it was an eye-opening meal. As a cook who knows almost nothing about the flavor profiles common in Nigerian dishes, I was inspired, so much so that by the time we were done I even asked the chef about becoming a stagiaire.
The idea that one restaurant can cover the disparity of “continental African food” is a haughty one at best. To include Caribbean cuisine makes creating a comprehensive menu impossible. The culinary focus of African Continental Cuisine (AFCC) is primarily Nigerian. In case you didn’t know, Nigeria is the most populous and culturally diverse state in Africa. Lucky for us, the chef knew that they were not going to be able to cover all aspects of that nation’s cuisine. Instead, AFCC does a few things and does them well. What their menu lacks in depth, their chef makes up for in execution.
AFCC is a family operation and owner/operators Luther and Mary-Anne Ismaila are driven by their love of food and a desire to spread the culture of her food to fellow Greensboroers. As a matter of fact, along with running the restaurant Mary-Anne has a day job at a local university. This is what allows her (and her husband) to share their gastronomic infatuation with us. It’s pretty easy to tell that the food comes from a place of passion. Some of these dishes are quite labor intensive and they were all executed very nicely.
Our meal began with an appetizer of sorts: a somewhat traditional Nigerian dish called puff-puff. It’s essentially an African donut. If I were to guess, I would say a batter of flower, water and yeast is formed in to balls, allowed to rise and then fried. Creating something akin to a yeast donut (krispy kreme) but with a darker, crunchier exterior. It was served with a ginger sauce that had a certain kick that caused me to ask, “what sorts of spices are in this” on two occasions. (“Just ginger” was all I could get.)
So after that awaking shot to the sinuses we order our meals and the food comes out pretty quickly (15 to 20 minutes, good for a late table on a slow night). After a beer and a cigarette we all tuck in to our main courses.
The jerk chicken was fine. I mean, it was jerk chicken; pretty standard fare. I can say that it was one of the few times that I can remember eating jerk anything that wasn’t as dry as wood pulp. Honestly, it was probably freaking awesome. But when you are at a place that serves unique fare, everyday food like jerk chicken is going to be overshadowed by the more distinctive options. The jerk sauce wasn’t too spicy so I would recommend this dish to someone who is either afraid of heat or just wants to dip their toe in the water of equatorial food. Served with joloff rice and fried plantain, it is a wholesome and healthy option.
We tried the seafood stew thickened with rice and served with fufu (agglutinated yam, plantain and/or cassava). It was delicate yet rich and was not lacking in that briny flavor you would expect from a seafood stew. Nigeria is a costal state after all. Just remember fufu is not supposed to be chewed. Take the fufu with your right hand, sop up a good portion of stew and swallow. If you absolutely need to do something with it then mush it around in your mouth but do not chew, fufu is not supposed to be tasted, it is a conduit for the real flavors in the stew.
The curried goat was nice. Not nice as in pleasant and lovely like your grandmother or the older gentleman at the whole foods, but nice like Lionel Messi or LeBron James. It was a surprise to see that they used the sweeter (but still hot) green curry to season the meat. It was just enough to clear my sinuses but did not overpower the goat’s gaminess. Like the jerk chicken it was served with joloff rice and plantain. This is a dish I would recommend to anyone.
So, I need to tell you something… I really like oxtail. Coda alla vaccinara, Kkori, that студень terrine from Russia… I love that shit. I mean for me, oxtail is a top 5 all time food. In a stew, when it’s done right, there is no substitute. For those of you that haven’t tried it, the meat can only be described as something between chicken wings and ribeye steak. The bone (typically left in) is where I’m coming from when I say chicken wings, and the high fat content and all out beef flavor is what accounts for the ribeye descriptor. However, to describe something like well-prepared oxtail in this way is almost derogatory. The dish’s origins and preparation may be rustic, but it takes skill and time to get the gelatinous texture out of the meat, and what you are left with (when done right) is a damn refined dish that would probably make Escoffier cream his chef whites.
AFCC’s oxtail does not suck. It is braised in a spicy sweet stock flavored with wine (Maybe Red Côtes Bordeaux? Maybe Rubinio Marsala? Eh, More likely Syrah). The bone marrow imparts a demi-glace richness leaving us with a bordelaise type flavor (except imagine if most French cooks were bad ass enough to throw a bunch of capsaicin peppers and brown sugar in the espagnole, and then double up on tomato.) This is my best guess, and despite all my “well chosen” words, this particular dish kind of leaves me hard up for a description. Normally, I’m pretty good at identifying ingredients, even in more complex sauces. However, all I can say for sure is: the dish involved braising the tail in coconut and or groundnut (peanut) oil, some sort of chili peppers, tomato paste, wine, about 10 other spices and something that provided a lingering sweetness after the initial punch of heat. I say you should try it.
If you are in the neighborhood and want head-clearing deliciousness, their kitchen is open Tuesday to Thursday 11:30 am to 10:00 pm. and Friday, Saturday from 11:30 to midnight; the bar is open a bit later. They also have plans in the works to open a second location near A&T on Phillips Ave so be on the lookout for that. Give these guys a shot. You won’t be disappointed.
Ross Ambrose lives, studies and cooks downtown. He is an advocate for cheap drinks, good music and exciting food.