Joloff shares its name with the savory orange rice that, alongside baked fish and vegetables, forms Senegalese national dish Teibou Jeun. I had never tried the dish, or anything uniquely Senegalese, before coming here, but Joloff’s vibrant atmosphere and flavorful cooking made for a compelling introduction.
Though Joloff is located on an unassuming block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, it feels distinct and lively. It was a gray day when we went, and stepping off the sidewalk into the street-facing area (whose walls were painted solid yellow-green) was like switching from black and white to color. The restaurant extends deep away from the street, and because the kitchen is walled off in the middle, there are effectively two dining spaces: the aforementioned front one, and a larger space in the back, painted cyan, with the register and stage complementing the tables. A narrow hallway connects the two, splitting them, respectively, into public and private regions.
Joloff is part Senegalese cultural envoy, part neighborhood nexus. The stage at the back of the restaurant has seen live music, film screenings, and other sorts of performance art. The walls are adorned with works by local artists. When we went, there were locals sitting at a table on the sidewalk and kids playing on scooters beside them. Though distinctly Senegalese, Joloff is tethered to its Brooklyn surroundings; it doesn’t exist in a vacuum the way restaurants often seem to.
This sort of character adds much to the cuisine, which is delicious in its own right. Our server started us off with a couple of drinks: bissap (a sweet hibiscus tea) and ginger lemonade. The ginger lemonade was particularly good; the ginger was fresh and spicy enough to be interesting, leaving a pleasantly fleeting burn after each sip. Appetizers were fatayas, fried pastries stuffed with either vegetable paste or fish, garnished with a slightly sweet tomato and pepper sauce. Both fillings were flavorful, and the crust was substantial without being greasy or excessive.
The entrees were the true standouts, though. Our server brought a plate of Yassa Ganar, chicken braised to tender perfection in a thick onion lemon sauce. This sauce was so plentiful, the meat so juicy, and the combination so aromatic that it was something like a stew, slightly solidified, but just as soft and warm and comforting. The flavors mixed so thoroughly that the distinction between its components had become purely textural.
The Teibou Jeun, though based around snapper, was similarly hearty. The fish was cooked in tomato sauce and spices until it was so dark and flavorful that it didn’t seem to have come from the sea. When pertaining to proteins, “chewy” is rarely a compliment, but seafood is usually so soft and light that adding a bit of firmness made the Teibou Jeun uncommonly, satisfyingly resilient against my molars. It was nowhere near being tough, burnt, or rubbery. Rather, it was just chewy enough to keep the flavor on my tongue a bit longer. Its richness went well with cabbage and potatoes, both flavorful in their own right, and the dish was completed by a large portion of the restaurant’s namesake, joloff rice. The broken grains were packed full of a stocky umami flavor, and their firmer, non uniform texture emphasized the granularity that is masked in white rice.
The thing is, for reasons that are beyond my comprehension, Senegalese food is not as terrifically popular in New York as, say, Thai. To a tongue that’s sampled many other “ethnic” traditions, it was somehow both different and immediately enjoyable. I may not get to find a good plate of Teibou Jeun as easily as a green curry, but now I have something new to salivate over. And, if my hunger becomes irrepressible, at least I can always take a train down to Bed-Stuy for a visit to Joloff.
Joloff, 1168 Bedford Ave., A/C to Franklin Ave., (718) 636-4011, Mon-Wed 1pm-10pm, Thurs-Sat 12pm-11pm, Sun 12pm-9:30pm.