Harlem. A historic district of African-American culture, since the Harlem Renaissance to present-day; the previous stomping ground of Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington, and for you Jazz fans, there’s the famed Cotton Club. Harlem is home to many interesting museums and institutions, like the Apollo Theater and The Cloisters, that gorgeous urban oasis that sits on 67 acres of land…in the middle of New York City. It’s also a culinary playground, with new restaurants popping up all over the neighborhood. In fact, it might as well be its own borough. Recently, gentrification sits next to dilapidated, and one hopes that Harlem retains its character. When traveling uptown, there’s Harlem to the east of The Park, and then there’s the west. We went west.
Two weeks ago I was fortunate that an off-duty taxi stopped to pick me up in the pouring rain. I was even more fortunate that I live in Brooklyn, because he was heading that way to drop off the car. He informed me that I was his last client for the next five months; he would be vacationing to a few different places, including an extended stay in his home country of Senegal. Naturally, the conversation turned to coffee, and his face lit up. He told me about Senegalese coffee, about a beautiful morning ritual where everyone must wake up when the coffee is made, and everyone must bring it to the room of the grandmother. There, the family serves the coffee together, spending the morning with each other. We discussed how many city-dwellers in America take their coffee to go, and use it for a morning boost. “The Senegalese are different”, he told me, they sit down with each other, they use it to come together.
“Have you been to Little Senegal?” I had never heard of such a place. He told me about this area where one can find anything from West Africa. He described it as full of African shops and restaurants. A few weeks later, I took a walk up Central Park to 116th Street. It wasn’t that obvious to me that this was “Petit Senegal.” It took a little studying. I started to notice the windows were full of exotic goodies — clay cups and pots — and many of the signs had West African names. I had read about a bakery a few blocks over, “Patisserie des Ambassades,” where people raved about the Pain au Chocolat and the fish. We walked over to this all-of-a-sudden more gentrified block, and there it was. The window was full of bread, and I was excited.
Don’t mistake this place as just a bakery, though the baked goods are incredible. The whole meal was worth the trek. The special of the day was a traditional fish dish served over rice with okra, carrots, and other root vegetables. The fish was cooked perfectly and stuffed with parsley and spices — full of flavor. We also ordered the Lamb Chops with couscous and plantains. The meat was accompanied by an aromatic, spicy onion mustard sauce. It was all delicious and satisfying.
For dessert, of course, was coffee and that Pain au Chocolat I had heard so much about. The coffee was Italian style espresso — they made many different lattes and cappuccinos. They brew Ammirati coffee, and it was a good, decent cup of coffee. But the Pain au Chocolat? Oh, the Pain au Chocolat! Never before have I tasted such a flaky, buttery, warm, heavenly pastry in my life. I’ve been to Paris, this was better. The perfect amount of chocolate, at the perfect temperature, this was the grand finale.
This incredible pastry accompanied by a cup of coffee and a lovely friend, to me, embodied the Senegalese philosophy of coffee: a way to come together. And that is what makes coffee so wonderful.