Papa Konare Diagne had no plans to open a restaurant when he decided to leave his home in Senegal for the United States in 1990. In fact, back home, where he worked as a law clerk, he had no deep desire to cook. “At the time, I simply wasn’t all that interested,” Diagne says.
Diagne changed his attitude about cooking not long after he settled in Brooklyn, N.Y. He wanted to eat “good” food without having to wait on his brother and sister, with whom he lived, to prepare meals. The result of his culinary evolution is Joloff Restaurant. Since opening in the Clinton Hills neighborhood in1995, Joloff has offered traditional West African dishes with a tasteful twist. Although Papa, as the jovial Diagne is affectionately called, emphasizes Senegalese recipes, he also prepares dishes from Guinea and Mali and says that his aim is to serve West African home cooking.
Diagne started his business by sheer exploration: he developed and practiced his cooking skills as a sideline. After being laid off from his job as a salesperson, he sold lunches to people who worked in downtown Brooklyn. Soon he was catering parties. The favorite then was — and still is — tiebu jeun, a baked fish dish that is a national dish of Senegal. Once Diagne realized he’d been working for and supporting himself, the next step was to open his own restaurant. “I want to offer a bit of Senegalese teranga, hospitality.”
Papa, 52, says memories of his maternal grandmother, Aminata, cooking were his inspiration once he opened the restaurant with his siblings. “She was an amazing cook who used to say ‘hot pepper don’t make you a good cook‚’ meaning that your food doesn’t have to be spicy to be good.” At Joloff, Diagne adheres to this advice: the dishes are cooked with just the right combinations of spices to come up with pleasant flavors. “It’s not spicy, it’s tasty,” he likes to say.
Sitting in the newly decorated dining room, with artwork from mostly African artists, my meal started with fataya djeun, a fish pastel, or dumpling, topped with a mild blend of onions and tomato sauce. Other appetizers to choose from include fried yucca and nem yapp, lamb spring rolls. Since Joloff rice is a primary dish in Senegal, it was a natural choice to sample the Joloff veggie, seasoned rice and vegetables with a mild tomato sauce. There’s not much vegetarian cooking in traditional Senegal kitchens, but Diagne created a few vegetarian and vegan dishes to accommodate non-meat diners that frequent the restaurant. Much of my diet consists of fish, so I was quite satisfied to see several selections to choose from.
The tiebu jeun was a meaty bluefish steak stuffed with garlic, parsley and ground pepper accompanied with lightly steamed cabbage cooked with tomato sauce, carrot and cassava, all served with seasoned Joloff rice. The flavors were subtle yet distinctive. The yassa jeun, a tangy dish of grilled fish cooked with lemon juice and mustard was pleasantly surprising. The mafe jeun is a delectable plate of fish and vegetables cooked in a creamy peanut sauce simmered with herbs.
In keeping with the theme of all things being “traditional,” Joloff offers homemade beverages such as bissap, a sorrel/hibiscus drink, and bouye, the sweet juice of baobab tree. The Joloff cocktail is a refreshing and somewhat zesty drink that is a mixture of ginger and bissap. The restaurant has not yet established a wine list, but patrons are invited to bring a bottle of their favorite vino — and there’s no corking fee.
Diagne says he’d like to open another restaurant, but he’s waiting for the right opportunity. “You see,” he smiles, “I have more recipes up my sleeve, but I want to save them for the new place, a place to grow.”
930 Fulton Street (at St. James Pl.), Brooklyn, NY 11238
Hours: Noon to 11 p.m. everyday of the week