I spent much of my time at Choukouya restaurant struggling to learn about the cuisine. Over the course of two dinners I peppered our servers with questions, probed nearby diners about their selections, typed menu items into Google and even asked to speak with the chefs, owners or whomever it was doing the cooking in the back of the house. In the end, the only strategy that proved successful was to allow the aromas, flavors and textures of the food to do all the talking.
As one of Cleveland's only West African restaurants, Choukouya can and should do a better job of indoctrinating inexperienced diners about the cuisine. Are the dishes Senegalese, Liberian, Nigerian or a more general collection of West African specialties, I wondered. Don't get me wrong, the servers could not be more friendly, accommodating and downright charming, but their knowledge of the food seemed only slightly more comprehensive than mine, which is nonexistent. Fortunately, I was armed with a few suggestions from a well-traveled friend who had dined there previously, and his guidance was invaluable.
Before eating, guests are encouraged to wash their hands at a modest server station-like area near the dining room. Utensils are provided, but so much of the food simply is easier to eat with your hands than by knife and fork. From savory pastries to grilled meats to bone-in chicken to the inscrutable fufu, it's all finger-friendly food.
Over the course of two dinners, I've hardly become an expert on West African cuisine — and barely made a dent in the lengthy menu — but I did thoroughly enjoy almost everything I ate. If you enjoy Cornish pasties, Jamaican beef patties or Mexican empanadas, you'll love the meat pies ($3) served here. Inside the crispy, flaky half-moon pastry is a warm-spiced filling of ground beef and vegetables. The hand pies are served with a ranch-like dipping sauce. French influence is evident in the pomme lyonnaise ($5), a large platter of french-fried potato slices garnished with sweet sauteed onions and fresh herbs.
I passed on the "Choukouya Fav" appetizer on my first trip because of the $18 price tag, but was persuaded to order it on a return visit with a hungry companion. "Fav" indeed, the dish is piled high with expertly grilled lamb, both riblets and chops, topped with sauteed onions and peppers and drizzled with a creamy yogurt-based sauce. On the side sits a "secret" spice blend for sprinkling that managed to make the juicy, well-charred meat rise to new heights. The only thing missing was an ice-cold beer, which the restaurant does not carry.
Peanut stew, one of West Africa's most familiar dishes, resembles an Indian or Thai curry, but it manages to summon absolutely nothing from my taste-memory banks. The exotic, aromatic and intoxicating flavors strike a balance between sweet and savory, with earthy peanut notes buoyed by moderately aggressive spice. Versions are available starring chicken, beef, lamb, goat and fish ($15 to $19). The recommended side for this dish and other saucy stews is fufu, a bland, starchy mash made from cassava that looks like a mashed-potato snowball. Pieces are pinched off by hand and used to scoop up the food in much the same way that injera is used in Ethiopian cuisine.
Chicken yassa ($17) is another stew-like dish with complex and beguiling flavors, this one combining tender bone-in chicken with heaps of green olive, melty onions and bright citrus. It all comes together in a comforting, mildly spiced medley that goes great with rice. At Choukouya, most dishes come with a choice of rice dishes that range from plain to the popular jollof, a version fortified with tomato and pepper. If you love spicy food, and they don't automatically bring it, request the housemade hot sauce, a screaming-hot paste made with scotch bonnets that goes to 11.
Order the whole fried snapper ($24) and you'll net a delicately cooked head-on specimen with sweet meat that slides right of the bone. Served on a large silver platter with creamy plantains and rice, the meal is too large to finish, but too delicious to stop trying. Whole fish fans can also opt for a grilled preparation.
The designation as "Resto-Bar" is an accurate one. The dining room is designed to host large crowds, with massive built-in tables capable of accommodating entire extended families. There is a full bar, but no beer license. We ordered glasses of a South African Bordeaux ($8) that arrived straight from the fridge, but tasted fine after they warmed. As dinner winds down on weekend nights, bands, DJs and other live entertainment takes the stage. Shots of Ciroc and Don Julio are downed like cold water and minty smoke emanates from colorful glass hookahs with serpentine hoses. We didn't stick around for the fun, but we will be back for the food.