The unevenly spaced, hand-painted letters that spell out African International Restaurant across its facade hint at the restaurant’s business philosophy: make good food and worry about the rest later.
A low, long counter lined by single-leg stools in the front room says diner, a remnant of the previous tenant, TJC’s Restaurant. Plastic tablecloths with Christmas-themed decorations stand out in contrast to any preconceptions you could make about African cuisines. Diners who require cloth napkins should check back at a later date.
What African International, 717 N. Salina St. (214-5923), lacks in décor it offers in authenticity. With the long-term influx of residents from Somalia and local grocers already offering East African goods, a Somali restaurant is long overdue.
The three co-owners met while searching for a good location to open such a culinary novelty. When they caught wind of each other’s plans to open a storefront on North Salina Street, they decided to pool their resources. Adjusting to a new life in Syracuse took a few years, but opening a business took someone with more experience getting through the bureaucracy of starting a restaurant.
For help, they turned to Hassan Gadid, the husband of co-owner Sadiya Dahir; they came to Syracuse from Somalia more than a decade ago. He now works as a computer technician at the Syracuse Housing Authority and works part time at the restaurant as a host and sometimes translator.
“The biggest obstacle from the beginning was the money, of course. Second was the paperwork. And third was the cleaning,” Gadid says, speaking on behalf of the owners, who share the cooking duties. Dahir measures out ingredients with familiar pinches and handfuls. Dahir was inspired to open a restaurant after receiving encouraging feedback about food she prepared for festivals and events showcasing world cuisines.
The North Side neighborhood surrounding Little Italy has long been home to different waves of immigrants, but offers few tastes of home for more recent immigrants from Iraq, Burma and East Africa. Somali cuisine retains influences from neighboring African countries, the Middle East and Europe, often introduced alongside colonization. Macaroni’s inclusion on the menu is in the gray area between offering local diners something more familiar and something Somali.
For the restaurant to succeed, Gadid says he’ll need to educate Syracuse diners. During dinners, he ushers customers through the menu. So far the response has been a healthy mix of curious customers and those more accustomed to African flavors.
A first taste will likely come from the free-of-charge Somali-style tea that accompanies any meal. Spiced with green cardamom and ginger, the tea hints at the flavors you’ll taste in the main dishes.
Somali-style rice is browned and spiced before adding broth to soften it, which gives the rice a firmer texture and an occasional crunch. Anjero, or Canjeero, is a spongy, almost sweet, flatbread common in East African dishes. Made for a communal meal, the bread is served on a metal platter the size of a large pizza. Three options top the middle section of the bread: a spicy, but not hot, sauce, meat and stewed cabbage. Diners tear off sections of the bread and squeeze portions of food between it.
Sambusas are fried triangular pastries stuffed with spices, vegetables and meat. Think of them as Somali-style somosas if that helps. Gadid insists these snacks will make fans of anyone who tries them, but probably not those averse to spicy heat.
No dish costs more than $9 and several of the less expensive, smaller dishes are plenty filling. To really get a variety of tastes, go with friends to share the Anjero and a couple small sides. They offer a mix of flatbreads and eggs by 6 a.m. on weekdays, and dinner until 10 p.m.; later on weekends.
Adventurous diners who favor authentic eats over fine dining will be rewarded with a sample of African, Middle Eastern and European flavors that aren’t easy to find in Syracuse. For the less adventurous eaters, perhaps dragged there by others, those American standbys—hamburgers and spaghetti—also grace the menu.
Word has come down that Joelle’s French Bistro, 4423 State Street Road (Route 321), Skaneateles, is on the market. But it remains open for business, so never fear. Patrons have been rapturously dining on Joelle Mollinger’s five-star cuisine since she appeared in the village with her business partner Alain Castel, sommelier and gracious greeter, since 2007.
That is the year the couple left their New York City restaurant when a regular diner there suggested they move upstate. They immediately fell in love with the area and knowledgeable lovers of fine food fell in love with them. But good things don’t last forever. “I am moving to Seattle to be with my daughter, but not until the restaurant is sold,” says Castel. “Joelle wants to stay here.” Further, Mollinger would be delighted to stay at the bistro, creating her French delights, under new ownership.
The asking price is $450,000, and includes the building about three miles north of the village; it was built in 1820 as a farmhouse, and then as a bed-and-breakfast. The eight-table bistro has additional dining in season in an outdoor patio, and the couple’s living quarters are above the restaurant. The property also comes with 3 acres. “It may take over a year until we find a buyer,” Castel admits. “For now, there is one interested couple.”
Diners with sophisticated palates have flocked to Joelle’s to feast on her creative menu of traditional French fare, laced with exotic Moroccan dishes like tagine. A French bistro wouldn’t be the same without fois gras, made on the premises, plus dishes like sweetbreads, crab soufflé, steak au poivre and coq au vin. Joelle, who, amazingly, is self-taught, also brings her interpretation of classic French dishes.
The extensive wine list that Castel selected remains, although he will no longer greet diners at the door before ushering them into a charming, informal living room area, complete with blazing fireplace in season. Once situated, diners can peruse the menu while sipping a complimentary flute of champagne.
Joelle’s French Bistro is open daily for dinner starting at 5:30 p.m. Reservations are highly suggested. Call 685-3063.
Manlius Italian food aficionados who for the past 29 years have happily trekked to Joey’s Fine Italian Dining and Pronto Joey’s Casual Italian Dining near Carrier Circle, will soon be able to savor Joey DeCuffa’s food closer to home. The legendary restaurateur and culinarian is setting up a new place in the spot next to the Manlius swan pond.
Appropriately, DeCuffa is naming his new venture La Bella Cigna, “beautiful swan” in Italian. The building had been a favorite watering hole for the Manlius crowd, for many years as What’s Your Beef. Most recently pasta was featured instead of steaks when chef-owner John Aliasso ran it as the Saucy Swan for about two years.
When the Saucy Swan closed a year ago, DeCuffa saw it as an opportunity. “We’re doing some improvements on the interior,” he explains, “and hope to open some time in March.”
In addition to his Syracuse eateries, DeCuffa has been running Joey’s Thousand Islands Club from May to September for about five years, but not this season. “Operating a seasonal restaurant is not easy to do,” admits DeCuffa. “When the owner of the building doubled my rent for the coming season, I knew I had to close.”
Never one to leave a stone unturned, DeCuffa saw the opportunity to take over the popular Manlius location, and will be bringing in some of the Thousand Islands Club staff, including his brother Rick, who cooked at the Alexandria Bay venue and will now be manager at the new restaurant.
“I will be taking some of the items from both Joey’s Casual Italian Dining and Pronto Joey’s for the La Bella Cigna menu, I have put together a list of wines to complement the food, and prices will be reasonable,” says DeCuffa. La Bella Cigna will be open for dinner only starting at 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and dinner on Sundays from about 1 to 7 p.m. For more information, call 682-3000.
High on the heels of the new restaurant is a major improvement slated for the adjacent swan pond. “New sidewalks and outdoor seating will be installed around the pond so that residents can sit and relax and enjoy the animals, while having lunch or snack,” says David Tessier, director of Planning and Development for the village of Manlius. Tessier estimates the cost to be about $950,000 and the hope is that work will begin this spring to be completed by the end of 2012. “DeCuffa is opening an outdoor patio with a view of the pond to capitalize on the new improvements,” adds Tessier. It looks like a win-win proposition all around.