After eating about 2500 calories of West African food on a Friday afternoon, I decided that it would be a really good idea to eat more West African food the very next night. I managed to drag a pair of friends out to Fatima, a Guinean restaurant in Prospect Heights.
Before I continue, I have a question: why the hell are there so many places in the world that contain the word “Guinea”? There’s Guinea (small, troubled West African nation), Equatorial Guinea (even smaller, oil-rich West African nation), Guinea-Bissau (small, obscure, Portuguese-speaking West African nation), New Guinea (South Pacific), and Papua New Guinea (about 1200 miles away from New Guinea). And somehow, the word “Guinea” applies to a so-called pig that’s actually a rodent, and the word also functions as an anti-Italian slur.
While I’m on the topic of anti-Italian slurs, I remember eating a sandwich called a “Guinea grinder” when I was a kid in the Midwest. Is that really an acceptable term these days? I’d think that somebody would have gotten really upset about that a long time ago. “Guinea grinder”?? Really?
The world may be very confused about the word “Guinea,” but the Guinean owners of Fatima in NYC don’t seem to be the least bit confused about their food. Sure, not everything on the menu was actually available when we showed up at 10:00 on a Saturday night, but that didn’t really upset us. We tried to order buyon, a west African stew. Nope, out of that. We tried to order okra (I love slime!). Sorry, not today. We asked about the fuyon, a close relative of buyon. Sorry, try again. Acheke with lamb? No, no more lamb.
But at least there was acheke, and that makes me really, really happy. Acheke, called attieke in some other west African countries, is a shaved cassava dish that resembles a hybrid of toasted couscous and quinoa—I had become hopelessly addicted to the stuff on our visit to Abidjan. On this particular Saturday at Fatima, I couldn’t seem to find any options besides baked fish, and that was fine with me. So I ordered acheke with baked fish ($10), and my two friends ordered baked fish with peas ($10) and baked fish with plantains (also $10), respectively. Yay, baked fish for everybody!
The fish really didn’t look too happy when they appeared on our table. The poor schmucks were black as death, with their heads still attached, looking like they’d been burnt into carbonized fish fossils. Not the most appetizing-looking creatures I’ve ever seen on a dining table. But those burnt-looking fish were insanely good, definitely among the best meals I’ve eaten thus far.
It’s hard to explain exactly why the fish was so damned good. Maybe it was because we were really hungry after lingering too long over beer in Bryant Park and enduring a 45-minute ride to Brooklyn. (Speaking of Brooklyn, one of my companions has lived in the NYC area for four years, and had never been to Brooklyn before our little trip to Fatima. We were very happy to pop her proverbial Brooklyn cherry. Awesome, right?) Anyway, maybe the fish was so good because of the fiery sautéed onion sauce that adorned the fish. Maybe the wise Guinean chefs used a magical spice blend before blackening the living hell out of those poor fish. And maybe it was the acheke and fried plantains, which are officially my two favorite carbohydrate-filled side dishes of all time.
And maybe it was the atmosphere: the room was filled with friendly West African men, all of whom were shouting and laughing and arguing while watching the waning moments of an NBA playoff game. The food was outrageously good, but part of the magic was the feeling that we’d just stepped out of NYC for an evening. We apparently landed in a charming foreign country where it’s perfectly normal to eat from communal bowls with your hands, talk to complete strangers with a smile on your face, and serve desperately ugly charred fish with the heads still attached.
Honestly, if you drugged me, dropped me in Fatima, and woke me up, I would have no idea that I was still in New York. I might look at the fish, and be slightly terrified. And then exchange glances with some random smiling men, and then I’d start eating… and I really wouldn’t give a flying f**k where I was anymore. Damn, that fish was good.
789 Franklin Ave., Brooklyn
Subway: Franklin Ave. (2, 3, 4, 5 trains)