A Gumbo of Flavor

Senegalese cuisine comes to New Orleans
Tabletalk

New Orleans cuisine is often described as a melting pot where various influences converged to create a unique panoply of flavor. Typical descriptors fork broadly along two tines – Creole and Cajun. More generally, in toss-away phrasing, New Orleans cuisine is often referred to as a “gumbo.” But what is gumbo?

One of our most-heralded dishes has its roots in West Africa, the source of the okra plant. Enter Serigne Mbaye, an ascendant young chef looking to plant the cuisine of Senegal on the national map, bringing the culture and traditions of his heritage. Mbaye, who was born in Harlem, raised in Senegal, and schooled in some of the finest kitchens both locally (Commander’s Palace) and nationally (Atelier Crenn), has an easy confidence that belies his ambitions. He could easily be one of the next big names to come out of our city’s professional kitchens.

Testing the waters in anticipation of a brick-and-mortar, Mbaye is presently presiding over a pair of pop-ups that showcase two approaches to Senegalese food. The first is hosted by Gracious Bakery on Prytania Street, where he offers a lunch menu that melds New Orleans poor boys with Senegalese components. The second, hosted by The Southern Food and Beverage Museum, presents a more formal take. “Gracious is all about the sandwich. SOFAB is about taking classic Senegalese dishes and modernizing them,” Mbaye said of his two current endeavors.

Most of us by now are aware of the foundational contributions made by enslaved peoples to modern New Orleans cuisine. Everything from cornerstone ingredients (okra) to composed dishes (jambalaya) stems from this heritage. But Serigne pulls it apart at a fundamental level. And what better way to present it than between two slices of bread?

Start with Petits Pois, a dish that just happens to be vegan and whose warmth and flavor profiles will blow you away. Smothered green peas, bright tomatoes and peppery arugula are bound together with a fiery Senegalese mayonnaise between two slices of artisan pain de mie. It’s the mayo that makes this dish, a silky concoction that includes habanero, cayenne and lemon juice, though Mbaye practices some restraint.

Fonio, a West African grain, figures prominently in both his menus. At Gracious, it is part of a composed grab-and-go salad with Creole tomato, mango and red onion paired with an unctuous lemon vinaigrette. Dessert choices include Thiakary Pudding, a millet-based sweet with raisins and cream reminiscent of a coconut-scented rice pudding. Consider pairing your meal with spiced Bissap, a vibrantly hued hibiscus tea.

Mbaye’s popup at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum showcases a more formal and composed menu. Options here include Yassa, in both vegan and non-vegan iterations. The non-vegan includes roasted chicken, whereas the vegan excludes this. Both versions include rice and roasted veg and are largely defined by the complex caramelized onion sauce that figures prominently in Senegalese cuisine.

Pop-ups are by their nature dynamic, so refer to Serigne’s website (Dakarnola.com) for ordering info and available days.

*Note: The author is part-owner of Gracious  Bakery, one of Dakar Nola’s pop-up stops.


ABOUT THE CHEF

Mbaye’s journey as a chef could fill a feature profile. Born in Harlem, at six he was sent to a series of Quran-focused boarding schools in Senegal. Corporal punishment was par for the course and the experience left him scarred, but it was also where his love of cooking took root. Mbaye spent time at Commander’s Palace before striking out on a globe-spanning journey of culinary exploration including stints with both Joel Robuchon and Dominique Crenn. He returned to New Orleans in the spring of 2020 with plans to open his own restaurant. “I think New Orleans is a city that will appreciate what I want to do,” he said. “I might not make as much money at it, but people will support it.

Plant-based Fare

Vegan Wit’ a Twist might not have the national aspirations of Dakar NOLA but is equally ambitious by another measure – bringing bold New Orleans flavor to vegan fare. Impressively, they succeed. Don’t believe me? Try their Oyster Tacos, where the namesake bivalve is subbed with fried mushrooms and coddled in a creamy sauce distinguished by its lingering heat.


Chef Serigne Mbaye, Dakar-Nola, Dakarnola.com. Check website for pop-up menus, spaces and times.