San Francisco Restaurant Resolution: Week One — Bissap Baobab

Shortly before our wedding, the Pirate Queen and I discussed measures we could take to maintain the fun and newness of our courtship as we entered our Spousal Unit phase. (Frankly, we feared falling into a rut over time, as many couples do.) We thought about the activities we most enjoyed together as we were dating, one of which was exploring interesting new dining options. Given that we’re fortunate to live in one of the greatest foodie destinations in the world, there’s no reason to confine ourselves to the same old joints… as excellent as some of those old joints may be.

So, we made a pact: Every weekend between now and Labor Day, we’ll challenge our palates with a San Francisco restaurant that neither of us has patronized previously. By the end of the summer, we’ll have discovered at least fourteen new places to eat — some of which, we hope, might work themselves into our list of go-to spots.

This past weekend, we began our culinary journey at Bissap Baobab, a Senegalese restaurant in the Mission. (The signage on the building reads “Little Baobab.” Apparently, the restaurant under that name merged with another establishment nearby, called Bissap. If you look for reviews on Yelp, either the old name or the new will get you to the correct page.) Although both the Pirate Queen and I have traveled — and dined — internationally, neither of us had sampled Senegalese cuisine. Truth to tell, before arriving at Bissap Baobab, I wasn’t aware that Senegal had its own unique cuisine. But then, that’s one reason we’re undertaking this experiment — to learn about unfamiliar cuisines.

As it turns out, those Senegalese know a thing or two about food. We began our repast with two appetizers: aloko (fried plantains accompanied by a tangy yogurt-based sauce), and prawns swathed in a spicy red curry. I liked the plantains more than did the Pirate Queen — as you’ll doubtless deduce as you read this and future posts on this topic, she’s not partial to sweets — but we both agreed that the curry prawns were a hit. The sauce was pungent, but not overly intense, and with surprising levels of flavor. The shrimp themselves were slightly overdone, but not rubbery. (Shrimp may be the most difficult protein to cook perfectly. No, I take that back — octopus and squid are even trickier.)

The Bissap Baobab menu includes only five or six entrees, most of which consist of a basic sauce to which a selection of meats (or tofu, for you vegetarian types) can be added. Depending on the sauce, the meat options range from lamb or chicken to fish (tilapia, mostly) or prawns. All entrees can be accompanied with either rice or couscous. The Pirate Queen chose the yassa (a rich, mustard and onion-based sauce) with lamb, and enjoyed it thoroughly. My entree, called coco, consisted of a tilapia fillet grilled on skewers, then layered with a slightly sweet coconut-onion sauce and sliced potatoes. The fish was expertly cooked, and the well-balanced sauce made a perfect match.

We found the flavor profiles surprising and memorable. I expected something similar to either Moroccan or Ethiopian cuisine — two styles of cooking with which I’m quite familiar. Instead, Bissap Baobab’s food reminded me more of both Caribbean (which made sense, given the West African heritage of many Caribbean residents) and Indian cuisine, the latter of which came out of left field. The unique combination of spices, aromatics, and other ingredients is distinctive and very appealing, and I’ll look forward to other opportunities to expand my connection with this wonderful regional style.

As for the restaurant experience beyond the food itself: Like many restaurants here in The City, Bissap Baobab suffers from complications of space, or lack thereof. We were shoehorned into a corner in which our table wedged cheek-by-jowl with three other small tables, two of which were occupied by other diners. The staff, to their credit, figured out quickly that the arrangement was too cramped, and removed the unoccupied table to create breathing room between the three that remained. Aside from this minor snafu, we enjoyed our visit. Our waitperson offered friendly, helpful explanations of both the dishes and the drink menu, and answered all of our questions with a smile. Food arrived at our table with reasonable promptness, though we did have to wait a stretch to settle our check at the end of the meal. The interior of the space is decorated with bright, hand-painted murals that lend the ambiance a vibrant energy.

Uncle Swan gives Bissap Baobab a solid three-and-one-half tailfeathers out of a possible five. If you’d like to try a regional cuisine that offers some savory surprises, check out the Senegalese fare at Bissap Baobab the next time you cruise the Mission. (A bit of trivia: Bissap is the hibiscus flower; baobab is a fruit tree also called monkey bread.)

You’ll find Bissap Baobab at 3388 19th Street (between Mission and Capp) in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Food Glorious Food, Listology, My Home Town, San Francisco Restaurant Resolution, SwanStuff, That's Cool!

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