Ever since Yirgalem, the beautiful Ethiopian restaurant on Monroe Street, closed a few summers back, I've been looking forward to a new African restaurant in Madison. Now the east side gets a chance to welcome Africana Restaurant and Lounge, on Atwood, serving West African cuisine. It's a simple storefront, but the vibrant walls of deep pumpkin go well with the vintage terrazzo floor, and the wooden bowls and plates make for a natural, casual atmosphere.
East African cooking features various stews spread out on a big pancake of injera, the sourdough-based bread that's probably the most well known element of African restaurants here in the States. In West African cuisine, the stews are served over either rice, fufu (pounded white yams) or attieke, a couscous usually made from fermented cassava.
We started with the nem appetizer, fried eggrolls with a dense filling of pork, chicken and shrimp. These are very similar to Thai eggrolls, only the dipping sauce here was a hot, smoky red pepper blend. Though I was warned the sauce was "very hot," the heat factor here is only about enough to make the lips tingle. The nem are fun - hot and very crispy - but the sauce is the most interesting thing about them.
Maffe is the signature dish of West Africa. The stew of peanut sauce with onions and tomatoes comes, like most other entrees, with a choice of chicken, beef, goat, lamb or portabello mushroom. This was the most flavorful dish, with the mellow peanuts blending with the sharper tomatoes in the sauce. The beef was nothing special, though, standard stew meat. It's served over your choice of white rice or fufu.
The fufu is worth trying even if you end up not liking it. It's most easily compared to heavy mashed potatoes - you get the feeling that if you formed it into a ball and dropped it on the floor, fufu would bounce. The custom is to form it into a sort of scoop and eat the stew with the fufu, but I didn't see anyone eating with their hands. If you're just nibbling the fufu, it won't taste like anything much, but it pairs well with the maffe's rich sauce.
Another signature dish is yassa, a Senegalese stew made with grilled chicken in a lemon and onion sauce. The sauce was light and lemony and would have been a nice complement to the grilled chicken - had there been more of it. But the chicken, which comes on the bone, consisted entirely of very marginal pieces of the bird without much actual meat.
To an entree called okra sauce, a stew made with both okra and spinach, we added portobello mushroom. This dish had an odd metallic taste with a distinct smoky aftertaste. Perhaps the greens clashed with the mushroom, and it would be better with a meat choice. The attieke also had a smoky aftertaste and was dry and chewy. I found the smoky aftertaste to be the element in Africana's dishes I liked the least.
The chicken suya is grilled marinated chicken, served with a pile of grilled onions and green peppers and your choice of rice or fried plantains. Here the less familiar cuts of chicken again marred the enjoyment of the interesting spices, although the plantains were sweet, greasy and great.
My favorite entree turned out to be the couscous, which was quite different from others I've had: a rich tomato-based stew with beef cubes that were, this time, tender and full of flavor.
Also on the menu: jollof rice, which is more or less Africa's version of biriyani; two kinds of grilled tilapia; an Ivory Coast salad called Akwaba, with mixed greens, avocado, tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs; Egusi, a Nigerian soup; and kedjenou, a chicken stew from the Ivory Coast.
Everything we sampled was rather mild, with the exception of the hot sauce, so if you're looking for hot, ask for a side of it.
Overall, it was fun trying the different dishes at Africana, but only the couscous won me over immediately the way dishes at Yirgalem or Buraka have. Still, once you find what you like (and if the kitchen upgrades its meat cuts), Africana should be a good addition to east-side dining for some time.