Sunday, September 11, 2011

Exotic, Thoroughly Orleanian, But Disappointing

Bennachin Restaurant
1212 Royal Street
New Orleans, Louisiana

This African restaurant has been on my New Orleans restaurant wish-list for months, so when the opportunity to try it came up, I jumped at it. It's a very, very small place on Royal between Governor Nicholls and Barracks Streets. There was only one open table large enough for four people. Most were tables for two, with one for six in the window.

The service was prompt at first, though later, after the tables all filled, the one server on duty was harried. Still, she got everyone served, correctly and as fast as things came out of the kitchen, though there was the distraction of the front door knob falling off, so that every time someone closed the door, someone from the kitchen had to come with a knife to open it. Eventually they put a sign on the door asking people not to close it, and the people seated closest made it their special mission to enforce that injunction. Lucky, weren't we, that the air outside was unseasonably cool, and the bug population of New Orleans appeared to have taken the weekend off. (Those facts, of themselves, makes me view the entire world in an uncharacteristically optimistic light, and may have influenced my reviews of this and other New Orleans restaurants.)

Looking around the restaurant didn't give me any sense of Africa. Other than a cheesy page torn from some child's book, a map showing the major cities in Africa, and a similar assembly of photographs of some of those cities' most touristy location, there was nothing to evoke the continent, and certainly nothing to evoke the two regions where the cuisine on offer originates, the Bight of Benin and Senegambia. The pretense that all Africa is a cultural unit may be comforting to descendants of slaves, and probably to young, white New-Age One-World types, but it has no basis in reality. It is a post-modern conceit, based on ignorance and given full play in this restaurant.

But that's neither here nor there where the food is concerned. While it may be fatuous to pretend that a tourist from Luanda or Lilongwe will be right at home here, the pairing of cuisines from Cameroon and the Gambia is no more incongruous that offering both Thai and Chinese in the same restaurant, a pairing that is less exotic only because it is more familiar to Americans, who, for the most part, are likely as not to see all those peoples and foods as Basically The Same, whether lumped together as Asians or as Africans. My own experience of Africa is not extensive, but it's enough to know that people widely separated geographically will have significant differences, and people who are widely separated politically will have significant differences, and people who are widely separated both geographically and politically will have vast differences. So will their cuisines.

For our dining experience, we started with drinks of ginger. Not ginger ale; just ginger water. It is still-water with minced ginger, served cold. The flavour is powerfully strong, requiring that you sip it slowly. It's not at all sweet, and the taste seems to vary in palatability as you drink it, but it is a generally pleasant taste. 

I can't quite say the same for the food. We had three dishes at our table. First was the dish for which the restaurant was named, bennachin, which I know from other sources as Jollof Rice, a delicious mixture of meat, rice and vegetables. This version was powerfully seasoned in a way that jolted at the first taste, then grew more tolerable with each successive bite. The quality of the meat (beef, in this incarnation; no pun intended) was reasonably good and the dish was satisfying in both quality and quantity. It was served with an unfortunate spinach sauté that tasted like canned spinach with some oil and onion in it. I found it inedible.

Next was ndole, a dish combining beef, spinach and peanuts in a sauce of garlic and ginger. It was tasty, and I thought it would have been good did it not seem to use beef that was well past its sell-by date. It tasted spoiled to me, though the person who ordered it thought it good, and had no ill effects later on. It was served with fried plantains, and coconut rice that was good but had no discernible coconut flavour to it.

Finally, there was shipa shipa, shrimp and rice covered in a tomato sauce seasoned with celery and onions. I found the sauce boring, except for the unpleasantly strong taste of celery. The shrimp and the rice were both unremarkable. Again, the person who ordered it thought it was good, but he did have ill effects later on. I don't know if this is a case of cause-and-effect, or simply a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy; you decide.

The prices were not extraordinarily high per se. Had the food lived up to its potential, they would have been extrememly reasonable. But this, it seems to me, is a case of a restaurant pricing foods as though they were something really special, then serving up mediocrity at those same prices. Just because the cuisine is exotic, perhaps unique in the area, doesn't mean we should pay premium prices, if it just ain't good. And I don't think the food at Bennachin is all that good.
Bennachin Restaurant on Urbanspoon


1 comment:

  1. John LeblancSeptember 22, 2011

    Interesting. I really appreciate the detail you give about the food you guys had here. I tried it myself a few months ago, and I have to agree with just about everyting you say, except that I thought that ginger drink was awful. I went there hoping to be rminded of my visits to Africa (mostly Liberia and Ghana) back in the 90s, but decided that it was more reminiscent of Algiers (the New Orleans neighborhood, not the city in Algeria).

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