Monday, April 18, 2011

Aicha Restaurant: A Senegalese Oasis in Crown Heights

Amid the frenzy of Caribbean restaurants along the Bed Stuy/Crown Heights divide cutting across Nostrand Avenue, a new Senegalese restaurant recently opened in a failed jerk spot just south of Atlantic Avenue. I'm not going to pretend to know anything about Senegalese food (I don't blame you if you stop reading now), but Aicha Restaurant (pronounced "Aisha") is worth checking out for anyone looking for something different.

Senegal is in West Africa. That's as far as I read in the Wikipedia article (I kid-- I did do some actual research for this post, as you'll soon see). In NYC there's a small but noticeable Senegalese community stretching from Bed Stuy to Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, and a few Senegalese restaurants can be found as one heads down Fulton Street towards downtown Brooklyn.

Aicha is halal, so pork lovers should avoid (not really). While they also advertise "American cuisine," there's very little of it to be found. Instead, most of the dishes (I'll avoid calling them curries, but that's what they look like to me) contain beef or chicken and a bit of fish. Almost everything contains guedge (pronounced "gedge"), which is a musty, heavily fermented dried fish and a key ingredient in the coastal Wolof cuisine that predominates in the city's Senegalese restaurants. Although Senegal was a French colony, not much of what I tried seemed to have a French influence (beyond some of the dish names).

Grab a Vimto before heading towards the steel buffet table. For those who were recently ignorant (like me), Vimto is a British soda (also sold flat) flavored with rasberry, grape and blackcurrant. It's apparently extremely popular among Muslims during Ramadan (Check out this ridiculous commercial advertising Vimto in Arabic.)

Seriously, check out the video if you haven't yet.

OK, enough distractions. Onto the food.

There's a rotating cast of options, especially for filler. White rice is either sugared or unsugared (I never knew you could choose), but fill your plate with a layer of the toothsome and mildly spiced couscous if it's available.

Always get the "Sauce Claire." It's fantastic-- a thick tomato sauce with chunks of potatoes, carrots and a mix of fresh fish and guedge.

Kassava leaves and spinach both contain a beguiling combination of fish and beef.

I've been twice so far. My first plate included the Sauce Claire, and most everything else. If they've got it, grab a few chunks of the excellent charcoal grilled chicken. I also got mafe-- a peanut stew-- but I'm not much of a fan.

My second plate was slightly less monstrous.

Despite my lack of knowledge of Senegalese cuisine, I will make one suggestion: Get the hot sauce. It's great. They'll warn you about the heat, but you'll gain the cooks' everlasting respect if you can handle it, and it sharpens the flavor of each dish (especially in the Sauce Claire). I'm ashamed admit that I stopped at the bodega next door for a mouth-cooling chocolate milk after my last lunch. Instead, next time I'll try the sweet thiakry, which is basically a couscous pudding.

According to the owners, business hasn't been great, but they're open late (and two stores town from Anthony Mackie's soon to be opened NoBar). So if you find yourself in the area, do your best to avoid the scores of Caribbean restaurants (and David's Brisket House) and come support them.

Aicha Restaurant
602 Nostrand Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11216
Aicha Restaurant on Urbanspoon


  1. The sauce claire was outstanding -- especially with a splash of that hot sauce! I think it bears mentioning that most of the dishes have a serious proportion of palm oil. I like it one plate at a time, but I could see diners feeling overwhelmed by the combination of palm oil and guedge in many of those dishes.

  2. You're right. Moderation is key, especially with all that palm oil.

    I'll make up for it by checking out their grilled fish next time.