One morning last month I decided to find a new restaurant for lunch. I was in Paris for only five days and usually like to relax in familiar surroundings during my shorter Paris sojourns. But sometimes even these old bones develop a sense of adventure—especially around food, where I can be particularly adventuresome.
I reported recently in BP about my discoveries of cidre in an Ile St. Louis crêperie and choucroute at Brasserie de L’Ile St-Louis. That day I was destined to experience the sweet and pungent tastes of Senegelese food for the first time, as well as discovering a shop devoted to the works of African craftspeople, a gallery devoted to comtemporary African artists, and a bar/expo/jazz club featuring African and other world music—all on a small street in the Marais.
That overcast March morning, I walked to the kiosk at the corner of Blvd. St.-Germain, just across from métro Maubert Mutualité, and purchased the current Pariscope. Then I crossed the street back to the daily marché near the métro and chose a small chunk of some wonderful goat cheese, a tiny bag of Provençal black olives (the kind that are soft and not too tangy) and a small loaf of bread. Chewing on the bread, I walked a few blocks to the little park across from the Cluny Museum entrance and sat on a bench to eat and peruse the weekly restaurant guide.
At the end of the Pariscope were a few pages written in English (authored by Time Out). One of those pages highlighted new and interesting stuff, where I found a six-line review of Le Petit Dakar, a restaurant (named after the coastal city in Senegal) that is part of a one-block complex of gallery, gift shop, restaurant and bar, all run by La Companie du Senegal et de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (Senegal and West African Company).
Senegal is a French-speaking Muslim-African country on the northern Atlantic coast of the continent, shaped like an angry face looking west with its snarling mouth slightly open and chewing on the tiny country of Gambia. On its pointy nose is Dakar, the capital, a crowded city of two million people, according to Internet travel guides.
I was to find out later that the Companie du Senegal et de L’Afrique de L’Ouest was started in 1995 by Valerie Schlumberger, a woman who discovered Senegal at age 16. For some time, she’ s lived both in Paris and on the small, poor island of Goree just off the coast of Senegal, where she ran a clothing and dying workshop. She now runs artist’s workshops, a community clinic and childrens’ workshops through the ASAO – Association du Senegal et du Láfrique de lÖuest. She opened her first gift shop in Paris in 1995 in rue de Grenelle, to distribute the productions of west African craftspeople and market African artists. Later, she moved the gift shop to Rue Elzévir, opened the restaurant and gallery in year 2000, and the bar-expo in March of 2003 with a partner.
According to the Time Out reporter, Le Petit Dakar is a real find to be experienced quickly before the rest of the world gets wind of it. The night he was there, a Japanese fashion team photographed their meals. I jumped on the métro, emerged on Rue de Rivoli at St.-Paul, walked a few blocks down Rue Pavée to Rue de Francs-Bourgois and turned left past the Carnavelet Museum to find Rue Elzévir. One more right turn, and a half block down on the right, is Le Petit Dakar.
When I walked in, only three tables were occupied. The restaurant is so intimate that those few patrons made the place almost one-third full. By the time I left, most of the tables were filled. It felt pleasant just to enter the restaurant. The décor was a comforting melange of oranges and pinks and yellows, African music was playing in the background, and I was greeted with a friendly smile by a woman who seated me right away. Then she rested a small blackboard against the back of the other chair at my table–the entire menu (the only copy) was chalked onto that board. When I had finished ordering, she took it over to the table of three men who had entered after me.
Apparently there was only one person working in the restaurant, but that did not affect the service. The woman seemed to both serve and cook, since she kept disappearing into the kitchen to bring out the food…and there were no sounds coming from that direction when she wasn’t there. That day, there were three entrées, four plats and three desserts to choose from. (I notice that on the web menu there are eight entrees, five main courses and five desserts; perhaps they don’t serve all of them at lunchtime).
I ordered the signature “Salad petit Dakar,” which had a lovely, slightly spicy dressing and was constructed of mixed greens, a number of substantial slices of avocado, three small grilled shrimp, a tomato and other veggies. It was 7 euros. For my main dish, I I chose the Yassa de poulet, which arrived just a short time after my salad. It was a large chicken leg and thigh cooked in a light, tangy sauce, served with a wonderfully aromatic mound of rice crowned by a slice of lime and some vegetables (carrot, squash – just a bit), all hidden under the leg. Covered by the sauce as a sweet surprise were a couple of green olives. The price was 11 euros, and with a small glass of wine for 3 euros would have been enough without the salad. But I wanted to try everything.
As I ate, I saw a giant yellow gâteau delivered to a woman at a nearby table. She really seemed to be enjoying it, but it was too much dessert for me after my salad, main course, wine, water, and a glass of gingembre verre (a chilled glass of ginger with a little sugar). Finally, I looked at the desserts. Each one was 6 euros. Besides.the petit plaisir, there were sorbets and ice creams, and something called “Roule’ aux goyaves” (guavas), a small, flattish round cake with the fruit rolled into the dough. I learned that the monster cake is called “Le Petit Plaisir” (a misnomer if there ever was one). I learned also that the “plaisir” part was absolutely correct.
The woman came back to serve my coffee and asked me how I liked the gâteau. I told her it was very good (a slight exaggeration – it wasn’t bad, but not as sweet as I would have liked), and definitely much smaller than the “Plaisir” that had tantalizingly been carried by me earlier. Apparently sensing my disappointment, she asked if I would like a taste of the other cake. Of course I said “yes”.
WONDERFUL! A yellow cake, very light (almost an angel cake) and full of coconut, with a thick, creamy coconut sauce on the side of the dish. Yummmmmmmy! I left the restaurant stuffed and happy, but guilty until I decided that Dr. Atkins, South Beach and I would just have to part company for five days.
Each entrée (salads and appetizers) is 7 euros; the main dishes (except for a 12-euro poisson) are 11 euros, the desserts 6 euros, the wine 3 euros (as is the ginger drink), and the coffee is 2. Therefore, I ended up spending 32 euros, but a plat and a drink (totalling 14) would have been plenty.
Across the street at 5 rue Elzévir is Le Bar-Expo Jokko, to which I returned that evening. Jokko features shows at 9:00pm five to six days a week. That evening, an American singer sang both standard rock and show songs (in English) but also African songs with an African headliner, who was a fantastic drummer.
The room was very welcoming. As you walk in, there’s a bar and coat check area, while the show area (for which there is a cover charge) is an adjoining room where most of the seating is on cushioned benches along the wall. Under each low table are stools that slide out to accommodate people who cannot find room along the walls. The effect is an intimate and convivial atmosphere. The Jokko also serves food and both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks (from the standard to exotic sweet African concoctions).
The CSAO and Ms. Schlumberger have provided an exciting panoply of wares on Rue Elzévir, evoking the sounds and colors of Senegal and other west African countries. I also visited the shop, which was full of wonderful, brightly colored African dishes, clothing, scarves, jewelry, purses, and even furniture. Some of the plates are clear glass, with hand-painted figures of brightly garbed women. When they are placed atop an opaque dish with a rim of color around the edges, the appearance of the two together is wonderful–a depth of interesting color and style.
The CSAO web site includes photos of the various crafts sold in the boutique (including the “naaj” dish collection) and describes the technique used to create glass painting. The gift shop and gallery (Galerie 3A–also included on the web site and through a related link) are across the street and down the block from the restaurant, at 15-17 Rue Elzévir.
Open Tues. to Sunday 11-3 and 7-11
Michele Kurlander is a Chicago corporate lawyer, writer, small business and womens issues advocate, and mother of three grown children. She fell in love with France and all things French many years ago and travels back to France at least once each year (sometime two and three times), whenever her addiction overwhelms her and she can find a discount airfare.