The food Orleanians eat is so essential to their sense of place, of home, that it sometimes seems as if the city's distinctive cuisine is native to the land, rising from the muddy earth like crawfish. Nevertheless, the African foods of Gambia and Cameroon -- the latter being the homeland of Chef-owner Fanta Tambajang -- showcased at Bennachin recall how local food traditions have been shaped by their African ancestry. They do so, I might add, with often stunning results.
Cone, kidney bean soup, is another reminder. As with so many red bean preparations, it looks like nothing special but tastes grand; its thin gravy-broth detonates a chile hum down each of your limbs. Akara are fluffy fritters, made with shelled black-eyed peas but somehow exhaling a stronger essence of fresh corn than any hushpuppy. They come with relish-thick onion and tomato sauce at dinnertime, or on too-chewy French buns at lunch. My rote response to vegetarians, especially the strict vegan variety, who wonder what to eat in New Orleans is not to bother. Bennachin's jama-jama ni mokondo, a Jazz Fest regular, is a more constructive recommendation -- a bouquet of verdant spinach cooked down with salt, cayenne and spiced warmth, served with coconut rice and ripe plantains fried as you would fry a vegetable. You can taste the kinship between this dish and the pork-seasoned plates of greens and rice available at soul food restaurants around town.
Bennachin opened in Metairie in 1991, and later spent nine years in its Mid-City headquarters, whose atmosphere ranged from sparse to dismal. The new French Quarter digs, by contrast, pulse with energy; bubbly African rhythms want you to push tables aside and wiggle. Two females cooks in the open kitchen seem to produce tidal waves of sauce by moving only their arms. Exuberant customers, one of whom toppled a chair by turning around, squeeze into the 10 tight tables formerly known as Midnight Express. Bennachin's management didn't bother to remodel, keeping the Turkish restaurant's brightly dyed tablecloths, deep purple woodwork and wooden salt and pepper pails nailed to the wall. And why not? It was already a raffishly charming space.
Like at Midnight Express, alcohol is excluded from the otherwise intriguing beverage list. The house is equipped with wine glasses if you bring your own and, as a table of Frenchmen demonstrated, Budweiser tallboys purchased at the corner store require no stemware. I discovered new vices in the tingling housemade ginger brew and in Red Zinger, a tropical improvement on cherry Kool-Aid.
Not every bite at Bennachin resonates with familiarity, and it's possible to conclude a meal wondering what in all the earth's exotica you've just eaten. Often my vision of the dish ordered didn't correspond to the dish delivered by the single host-doorman-waiter-manager-busboy. Ask this guy about the food and he sort of giggles and shimmies away, a brilliant tactic that leaves you with only the option to eat.
Three beef stews, all available vegetarian style, looked similar and monotone on the page; tasted side-by-side, meat and perhaps garlic were the only universal flavors. For egushi soup, my favorite of the three, the sometimes-melting, sometimes-gristly beef wades in a ginger gravy thickened with ground melon seed and possessing the bright, briny flavor of green olives. Order it with fufu, a white, rubbery mound of mashed yams that Africans dip into stews with their hands; I tear it into buoyant soup dumplings. For dole, beef hides under a warm but virtually uncooked sauce, suggestive of pesto, made with ground raw peanuts, spinach and ginger. Domodo is another mealy-textured beef stew made with ground peanuts; they're roasted this time, rendering a deeper peanutty taste comparable to Indonesian satay sauce.
Bomok-chobi, whole baked trout with spinach and plantains, is a dish for forward-thinkers. You must order it 90 minutes before arriving, presumably to allow the fish time to marinate in its heavy mantle of minced ginger, garlic and onions. Not everyone at my table was enamored by the pungent hot-bitter-sweetness of these seasonings, but I was.
Given a kitchen smaller than a Garden District foyer, two foreign cuisines and a one-man service crew, you can expect a few foibles and eccentricities. Pastry pockets stuffed with potato and fish reeked with ammonia. The "apricot" sauce accompanying a knot of solid but manageable lamb was a fruit-less, gelatinous pool resembling a man-o-war, which is not to say that it didn't taste good. One night four of us shared a napkin rather than add linen fetcher to the waiter's duties; this sharing exercise was fun, a collective decision that seemed to jibe with the restaurant's overall air of communal jollity. Whether you find Bennachin striking in its familiarities or exotic in its Africanness -- both are possibilities -- you won't easily avoid its spirit of discovery.