A hillock of crabmeat and black-eyed peas presents an island within ruddy sauce piquant. Fragrant rice and veg are tumbled with peppery seasonings and protein components that shift between land and sea. One might think they were dining at a Creole stalwart. But this is Dakar NOLA, Chef Serigne Mbaye’s love letter to the foods that shaped his childhood. Here he colors between the lines, drawing connections between to the cuisine of his native Senegal and NOLA in ways which are surprising and familiar all at once.
Slotted in a historic Creole cottage amid the artsy outposts of Magazine Street, Dakar is the realization of a dream honed by years of work in some of the finest restaurants in the country such as Atelier Crenn in San Francisco and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in New York. Most recently he was the chef for the insider-darling Mosquito Supper Club, also throwing pop-ups along the way to float his ideas. He is a chef that other chefs are talking about and is often shortlisted as the next breakout talent. But it doesn’t go to his head – Mbaye swiftly wins people over with his charisma and sincerity. For him, the job is straightforward. “Our mission is to let people know that Senegalese cuisine has a place at the table, just like anyone else,” Mbaye said. “And as there are a lot of similarities between Senegalese and Creole food, I believe New Orleans is a city that will appreciate what it is I want to do.”
Dakar’s approach takes some chances. Guests share tables (unless requested otherwise) and most dishes are served family-style. There is just one tasting menu, an eight-course affair with (at press time) just one turn per night. Entering the restaurant, warm earth tones and burnished wood accents greet the guests. A cut out along the back wall lets diners peek into the orchestrations of the kitchen. It is an informal setting, but impressive in the way that Danish furniture is exceptional through its simplicity. Every element here is considered. Dakar is not a fancy restaurant – indeed, a great number of its ingredients are of intentionally humble origin – but all the signifiers of fine dining are clearly evident. The front of house moves as a team, running dishes to tables with precision as servers explain each course.
After a ritual handwashing, a warm tea of ginger and jasmine topped with a mint-infused foam helps direct your attention to what lies ahead. A meal here tells a story, and chances are that Mbaye will share its relevance along the way. Yeasty rolls bedecked with sea salt start things off, with a peppery seasoned butter that cuts across the sweetness. Fonio, a gluten-free grain that is a staple of Senegalese cuisine, grounds a salad of citrus and apple with its earthy nuttiness. Accoutrements with outsize supporting roles contribute greatly. Here is Roff – an aromatic pesto that adds herbaceousness to a pearlescent slab of perfectly cooked red snapper. There is a ramekin of fiery habanero, dollop as needed (the Senegalese like their heat). A jambalaya-like Jollof Rice is passed around. A precise row of heads-on shrimp is built upon a backbone of sour-sweet tamarind. Cubes of butternut squash with greens, their bright green color shock-locked in, work as a side. Courses follow each other with a coordinated precision.
Will Senegalese cuisine catch on? Mbaye believes so for one foundational reason: “Our food just has so much in common with the cuisine of New Orleans. I don’t have to adjust it to fit the New Orleans palate — people here already love it. They just don’t know it yet.”
Dakar NOLA, 3814 Magazine St., Uptown, (504) 493-9396. dakarnola.com
About the Chef
Born in Harlem, at age six Serigne Mbaye was sent to Senegal for schooling which is where his love of cooking took root. He eventually returned to the states and studied culinary arts at the New England Culinary Institute. From there his career took flight, eventually learning from such nationally acclaimed chefs as Joel Robuchon and Dominique Crenn. He fell in love with New Orleans while working at Commander’s Palace, and it was here that he decided he wanted to open his own business. Following a series of pop-ups and time spent with the Mosquito Supper Club, Dakar NOLA is the realization of that dream.