At Serengeti Kitchen, Touches of Memoir Dot the Menu
At Serengeti Kitchen in East Harlem, the escargots are small and dainty, demure analogues to the giant African land snails — large enough to spill over the palm of your hand — that are eaten as hors d’oeuvres in West Africa.
Doughba Caranda-Martin III, the chef, braises the escargots slowly in a stew of tomatoes and smoked peppers, including musky black pepper from the Gulf of Guinea and wild handpicked Madagascar pepper, floral with a whiff of camphor. Just before serving, he adds half a teaspoon of crushed Ghanaian kpakpo shito peppers, ever so slightly less incendiary than Scotch bonnets. The snails emerge tender, with a lovely heat that curls up the back of your throat.
Mr. Caranda-Martin was born in Liberia to a family steeped in politics (one grandfather was a senator) and spent much of his childhood on his grandmother’s farm in Grand Bassa, south of the capital, Monrovia. He was 15 when the First Liberian Civil War began, in 1989. “Bullets were flying everywhere,” he said. Alone, separated from his family, he made his way east to a refugee camp in Ivory Coast and eventually found sanctuary in the United States.
He earned recognition as a visual artist and started a nonprofit organization to send medical aid to West Africa. But he never forgot his grandmother’s lessons in botany or his family’s history of growing tea and coffee. In 2013, he opened a tearoom, Serengeti Teas and Spices, in central Harlem, “to give the world something else to know about Africa,” he said. Serengeti Kitchen followed this November, about a half-mile east.
Time bends here; a meal might take four hours, even when the dining room is empty. The kitchen is still finding its footing — or, perhaps, you are being asked to pause and learn a different pace of life.
It’s a beautiful place to do so, the narrow dining room glowing from burnished lamps and red Moroccan lanterns, with indigenous and contemporary African art sharing the walls. Geometric cutouts perforate the restaurant’s facade, an allusion to Dogon architecture in Mali, repeated indoors and on the ceiling over a semi-enclosed back garden.
Every few months, the menu will shift to explore different regions of the continent. For now, Liberia is its heart. One dish harks back to summers on the farm in Grand Bassa, where Mr. Caranda-Martin picked leaves off the sweet potato vines. Decanted palm oil is brought to high heat until it loses its blood-red hue and turns the color of high noon. Then sweet potato leaves, dark and iron-rich, relax in the pan, soaking up the oil, and come out a creamy pulp with a faint smack of garlic.
Another touch of memoir: a jelly jar filled with duck liver pâté, which Mr. Caranda-Martin’s grandmother used to make and call “liver butter.” (Ducks wandered the farm.) It’s simple and forthright, accented by rosemary, cloves and Ethiopian sea salt, with sesame oil for extra velvet.
In his art, Mr. Caranda-Martin has used heirloom African textiles as canvases, painting over them, refusing to allow the past to remain static. With food, too, he nods to tradition but faces forward.
A thick soup of zucchini and bunapi mushrooms is cooked down with muan-muan (fermented fish) in a broth of forest bark, melding sea and earth. Roasted guinea hen, customarily served whole, is here represented by its best part, thighs, deboned and tied with string to hold in the juices, and half-submerged in a deep, mellow stew of sweet African peppers.
No meal is complete without tea, served in a glass kettle that’s perched over a candle to keep it warm. Each has a story, like one that Mr. Caranda-Martin described as “drunk by fishermen,” composed of wache (red sorghum leaves) and root grass from the West African coast.
For dessert, hot chocolate is inflamed by dehydrated Scotch bonnets; truffles are laced with suya spice, a flare-up of ginger, chile and kuli-kuli (spiced groundnut paste), more often slapped on meat before grilling. Other treats are hidden on the tea list, including apple cake, baked by an aunt and so rich it’s almost damp, and a lush pudding born of a childhood prank of throwing kelewele (ginger-fried plantains) in a blender.
There are more stories. And to book the $65 tasting menu, which features rarer ingredients like loofah, a gourd from Botswana, you must call ahead and share your own. “We have to have a conversation, like grandma and grandpa when you’re coming over,” Mr. Caranda-Martin said. “We need to have a sense of who you are.”