Winnie's Caribbean Café's successor carries on its tasty West African cuisine and the friendly atmosphere. 

Winnie's Revisited

Last year Richmond suffered the tragic loss of restaurateur Winnie Ross. Winnie was the heart and soul of the restaurant that bore her name and it must have been clear to everyone that her downtown eatery on Second and Main streets could not go on without her. Although nothing could replace Winnie's Caribbean Cafe, the new occupant Taste of Afrika does retain some of the friendly atmosphere and down-to-earth ethnic cuisine that made Winnie's so distinctive and popular.

Like its predecessor's, the décor at the Taste of Afrika is nothing fancy. Its style reflects a different cultural aesthetic that gives the place something of the refreshing feel of a trip to some far-away tropical place — a place where the colors are bright, the mood is laid back and the slip covers are plastic.

Taste of Afrika's menu, which is posted online at www.isgr.org/adtofafr.htm, reflects the cuisine of its proprietor's home, the West African country of Senegal. Though its menu offers conventional American crowd-pleasers like sub sandwiches and burgers ($2.50 to $5.50), its centerpiece is composed of Senegalese specialties like Chicken Yassa ($7.99), which is a famous mustard-marinated chicken-and-vegetables dish served over rice, and West African-influenced dishes like St. Louis Red Snapper ($12.99) which is cooked with tomatoes, garlic, onions, vegetables and also served over rice.

There is nothing subtle or delicate about this food — the flavors are bold and spicy, the helpings are large and the presentations are without fuss. We skipped over the American appetizers like wings and chicken nuggets, and opted for the "Accra" soup ($2.99), which is a spicy, navy-bean stew with a pleasantly smoky flavor. Though there was nothing African about the garden salad ($1.50), which was accompanied by a basket of single-serving dressings, it nevertheless adequately fulfilled my modest expectations of a side salad. After polishing off our soup and salad, we sipped refreshing ginger-spiked hibiscus drinks called Sorrel while appreciating the music of Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour.

Taste of Afrika serves a piquant peanut tomato stew called Peanut Maffle with chicken ($7.99) or lamb ($9.99). When I ordered the lamb version, our extremely affable waiter explained that actually they were alternating and tonight was the chicken night. This probably would have irritated me at any other restaurant, but I couldn't seem to muster any ill will towards the personable and apologetic staff of Taste of Afrika. The chicken is prepared in large pieces that are neither boneless nor skinless; this is a method of preparation that, notwithstanding the American obsession to the contrary, results in superior flavor and texture. These moist chicken pieces were stewed in a deliciously rich peanut sauce that was redolent with spices and imparted its rich flavor to every last kernel of rice with which it came. It's a dish I'd order again.

Outside of its sandwich selections, the menu does not include a vegetarian entrée, but our eager-to-please waiter was quick to offer up a vegetarian platter ($7.99). This turned out to be a mound of nicely spiced red rice, a flavorful slab of stewed white cabbage and carrots. Not a bad little combination, especially considering it wasn't even on the menu.

One of the appealing things about Richmond's ethnic restaurants is that they don't tend to be stuck in the insufferable carrot-cake-and-key-lime-pie rut that plagues our more mainstream venues. Diners looking for a unique dessert experience will appreciate Taste of Afrika's bean pie which, I should say, is good deal better than it sounds. It involves a sweet and creamy white bean paste spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg that bears little semblance to the beans from which it is made. The paste is baked in a pie shell and topped with sweet crumbles, resulting in a nice dessert that's well worth a try. Less exotic and also less good, was a plain lemon cake that was very moist but otherwise unremarkable.

Taste of Afrika is not a place for the unadventurous or the uptight. But if you're in the mood for something a little exotic early in the morning or late at night (it's open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.), stop by Taste of Afrika. Could be chicken night, could be lamb night, but either way there will something authentic and tasty on hand for your dining pleasure.


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