On the menu, it is called the Federation Combo: to one side, basmati rice in sunrise shades of orange and gold, with dark tears of stewed raisins on top; to the other, linguine as creamy as Alfredo.
In Somalia, the noodles and grains would be more than neighbors, mixed happily together. But at Safari, which opened in Harlem in May, they are kept distinct, as a gentle introduction for diners unaccustomed to Somali cuisine.
Safari (which may be the only Somali restaurant in New York City) stands on a stretch of 116th Street known as Le Petit Sénégal. The surrounding neighborhood, with its undertow of French, is home to Manhattan’s greatest concentration of immigrants from West Africa. But Somalia is on the opposite coast, and the food here bears little resemblance to the viscous West African stews found elsewhere on the strip.
There are influences from across the Arabian Sea, as with sambuusas, triangles of dough sealed around cumin-laced ground beef or chicken, distant kin to Indian samosas. The accompanying bisbaas sauce has a soothing base of yogurt and cilantro with a faint trigger of lime and a groundswell of jalapeños. On one visit, it was merely lively; on another, it felt as if it had torn the roof of my mouth off. (I liked that better.)
Bisbaas is a faithful escort for almost every dish, primarily intended to anoint rice, said Shakib Farah, the chef. The meats themselves don’t need further enhancement: a fine rubble of beef fragrant with rosemary and heavily underscored by mitmita, a spice blend in which African bird’s-eye chiles outmuscle cardamom and cloves; flank steak cut thin, fried hard and wholly possessed by ginger and garlic; goat roasted for six hours, arriving in a heap, still armed with bones, along with a refusal to capitulate immediately under the teeth.
The quasi-Alfredo sauce for the linguine — heavy cream imbued with oregano, rosemary and basil — is borrowed from Chicken Fantastic, a dish close to a fricassee that seems to have emerged from the Somali restaurant scene in Minneapolis, host to the largest Somali population in the United States. Likewise, the catch of the day (often kingfish, as oily as mackerel) is contoured in bisbaas and lime zest, then sauced à la Fantastic.
The presence of pasta and Mediterranean herbs is a legacy of Somalia’s half-century of Italian occupation. Mr. Farah is from Galka’ayo, in the north; his family fled the country when he was a child, at the start of the civil war in the early 1990s, and found the way to the United States through Kenya and Zambia.
Safari’s owner, hostess and sometime waitress, Maymuuna Birjeeb, who goes by Mona, was born in the southern port city Kismaayo and grew up in Sweden. She left a career in banking to open Safari, and recruited a cousin, Jamal Hashi, a chef in Minneapolis and native of Mogadishu, to draft the menu. (She can’t explain their precise genealogical connection. “All Somalis are related somehow,” she said.)
Perhaps the staff’s most beloved dish, urged on me on every visit, was mango curry chicken, heady with berbere. It feels churlish to note how perilously sweet it is. A love of sweetness pervades the drinks, too: white grapefruit juice jittery with sugar, and shaax, black tea brewed with cinnamon and cloves and smelling like gingerbread.
Traditionally, a banana comes with every Somali meal. But after some confused diners refused the fruit early on, Ms. Birjeeb considered handing them out only to fellow Somalis, who would understand. If you’re offered one, be grateful.
Outside, on the sidewalk, a sofa offers respite to waiting diners or simply weary passers-by. Inside, the dining room is welcoming, if slightly spartan. One wall is covered in the graceful hooks and curls of the Osmanya alphabet, invented in the 1920s for transcribing the Somali language, as an indigenous alternative to Arabic script. (In 1972, the government opted for Roman letters instead.)
On a recent afternoon, the young man at the register expounded earnestly on the alphabet’s origins, the wonders of mango curry chicken and his journey from Mogadishu to Columbus, Ohio, and Harlem. “Americans are so nice,” he said.
By: LIGAYA MISHAN