Mohammed Agbodjogbe, 45, could be a poster child for the American Dream. After immigrating to America from Senegal in 1999, he got his first job working at the KFC on New Hampshire Avenue in Silver Spring. Today, the real-estate developer is the proud proprietor of Nailah’s Kitchen in Govans, which claims to be the first fine-dining restaurant to bring the bold flavors of Senegal to the Baltimore area. In the 112-seat dining room, the white tablecloths bestow a simple elegance. There are also artistic touches like a massive lighting fixture made of traditional wooden bowls and a collage of spoons and forks.
Our waitress asks if we are familiar with Senegalese food, as she hands us a slickly produced binder containing photos of the dishes. When we admit that we’re not, she explains that Senegalese food favors stewy, one-pot dishes served with rice or couscous along with the all-important sauces, redolent of onions, garlic, ginger, and Dijon mustard—an influence of French colonization.
She recommends the thiebou djeun—pronounced “cee-boo jen”—($25), Senegal’s national dish of fish stuffed with garlic, parsley, and dried peppers, and slow-cooked with rice and vegetables in a tomato-based stock. Nailah’s version features a hunk of red snapper served on a bed of broken rice with cabbage, carrot, and yucca. The richness of the dish is cut by the acidity of a spicy, sweet sauce made with a special Senegalese seasoning blend called adja. We also order mechoui ($30), a marinated lamb shank served with couscous and sauce sap, the mustard-based condiment that doubles as Senegalese ketchup—but the meat is a bit dry. The pintade braise ($15), a whole grilled guinea fowl, tastes like roast chicken, and, once again, is greatly elevated by the sauce—this time sauce vert, a green variety that gets its color from parsley. We also make quick work of an appetizer called fataya ($5)—small empanadas stuffed with spiced tilapia.
Since the restaurant doesn’t serve alcohol, we washed it down with bissap ($10), a combination of tart sorrel (hibiscus) and pineapple juice, which, though a bit sweet, complements the bold flavors. Thiakary ($10), a combination of sweet milled couscous, yogurt, orange, and raisins, provides the perfect ending to the meal.
›› Nailah’s Kitchen 5722 York Road, 443-461-5600. Hours: Tue.-Sun. 4-11 p.m. dine in, noon-11 p.m. carryout; closed Mon. Appetizers: $5-7; entrees: $9.99-40; desserts: $5.