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Florence's: Fabulous West African in Harlem

Florence’s, at 2099 8th Avenue, near 113th Street, serves the cuisines of Ghana and neighboring Ivory Coast. The foods of these countries have similarities with other West African cuisines, like Senegalese and Togonese, such as the use of peanut sauces, fermented grains and fufu (the glutinous, gooey cassava & plantain starch thingy that can be best described as a blob), but there are also national specialties.

The family that runs the restaurant is Anglophone Ghanaian. It’s a small, cozy place and the proprietors are a delight. The atmosphere was enlivened by the great music ranging from vintage highlife to contemporary African hip hop as well as the cute kids, clearly all of the family, ranging from toddler to adolescent, hanging out, chatting and playing. It was like being a guest in their home, and we indeed felt like guests. For me this is a great restaurant experience: to feel like a guest rather than a customer.

Our waiter was very helpful with explanations and suggestions. For an appetizer we had kelewele, small cubes of ripe plantain with hot pepper, ginger and other spices, fried until they get a slightly caramelized coating. The kelewele, apparently a very popular Ghanaian street food, was absolutely addictive.

The majority of the dishes are soups and stews, served with your choice of meat and grain. We had a peanut soup with goat meat, with fufu on the side. For me this was the least successful dish, though the goat was tasty and not at all gamey. I found the peanut soup a bit on the bland side, and I’d forgotten that I’m not fond of the consistency of fufu. As I review the menu, however, I’m not sure whether we were served the Ivorian arachide or the Ghanaian peanut butter soup.

We had the Ivorian okra soup/stew (gombo: does that sound familiar?), with chicken. The dish is long cooked until the okra melts down and creates a thick soup with the broth and spices. I noticed a familiar flavor component reminiscent of some Malaysian dishes, and confirmed with the waiter that it was indeed dried shrimp. Overall the gombo had an interestingly smoky, slightly spicy, slightly funky flavor.

Without a doubt the highlight was the attieke poisson braisse, braised whole tilapia topped with onions, tomatoes and peppers, served with a wonderful, incendiary hot pepper sauce known as shito. Attieke is a starch made from fermented, grated cassava that went very well with the fish. Unlike many of the other sides, which are found all over West Africa, attieke is very specific to Ivory Coast.

I love Florence’s. I want to hang out there again. I want to try everything on the menu. I want to take all my friends.

http://petercherches.blogspot.com

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  1. Thanks for a great review. Much appreciated!

    1. Thanks for that review!...i've been wanting to try this place for a couple years and haven't made it there yet: you've just moved it back to the top of my list...

      1. this sounds amazing! thank you so much for a tantalizing review. i propose a chowdown there. anybody want to take on the organization? if so, please email me (my address is on my profile page) and we can coordinate.

        1. Thank you for this. I had some happy times in Ghana and hope to relive them here. Previously, the only Ghanaian place I found was in the south Bronx, wasn't very good, and had bulletproof glass around the cashier.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Brian S

            There seem to be more Ghanaian places in D.C., in Adams-Morgan. Florence's was much better than the place I tried in D.C.

            1. re: Peter Cherches

              My interest is not primarily culinary, any more than Prooust was looking for the highest-quality madeleine. What I wrote on this thread (halfway down the page) should explain.
              http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

          2. Peter, thanks so much for leading us to Florence's. It's a great spot, with a broad varied menu that I look forward to exploring more. I got the peanut stew with chicken--smooth and creamy with a subtle pepper kick.

            We got the kelewele fried plantains on the side, and they are the best plantains i've ever had--coated with delicious carmelized cloves, onions, garlic and hot pepper.

            1. Thanks for what turned out to be a great tip. I put this place on my mental list of places to go, and today I went. Crowded even at lunch. A long wait but a very pleasant place to wait. I had the Ghanaian peanut butter soup with chicken and a side of fufu. You wouldn't think that chicken and peanut butter would be delicious, but it was. Total bill: $9. I plan to go back.

              1. So, with Peter Cherches and "rose water" (both of whom have been there: see above posts) in the lead, 10 of us went to Florence's last night. As Peter said, it's a very plain place but the presence of family and a TV (this time with some "So You Wanna Be a Dancer"? type "reality" show on, which included Tom Jones singing... but I digress). I reserved in advance but wasnt sure of the final # of folks who were showing. The owners didnt mind at all and rearranged things for the 10 of us that showed.

                I cant even get close to remembering everything we ate. However, given our numbers, we were able to try quite a few things. I really liked the plaintains that are coated with something spicy (kelewele: see Peter's post); I really liked the cassava that's ground to cous cous consistency and fermented; I really liked the peanut sauce; simply prepared whole fish is great in almost any culture...no exception here; okra (slimey as it was) is a great base for whatever meat we put it with; they make a spinach based stew that stands up to cow skin, cow foot and oxtail (separate dishes.. the spinach was better than the 3 "meats", but I liked the cow skin one the best); they make a dynamite tripe dish; skip the whole plaintains; definitely skip the fufu (I thought poi was bad!); I'm a sucker for the white yams. Anyone on a carb free diet, stay far away!

                As if the food wasnt good enough (very down home, family style... nothing fancy or top line ingredients about it), the check they presented was absurd. There were leftovers, 10 stuffed patrons & a bill of $86. We left a $24 tip and therefore spent a whopping $11pp. We left some beer as well but I dont know if they drink. I still feel guilty about the cost.

                Recommendation: go there. It's very good.

                4 Replies
                1. re: Steve R

                  When I have gone (tuesday nights on my way home) the entire kitchen and waitstaff has dropped what they are doing to watch "Dancing With The Stars," although I am unsure how they are taking the loss of Jerry Springer, who seemed to be their fan favorite.

                  I've had a thick soup/stew made of goat meat and fish that was rather good. I tend to stick with the stews because they are inexpensive, good, and the leftovers feed me through two more meals. One thing that was nice was that one of the waiters who has been there sometimes when I went took the time to explain nearly everything to me, including the health benefits people in Ghana believe certain ingredients in the dishes have. Very friendly.

                  1. re: merrymc

                    "Dancing With the Stars" it was. The toddler seemed especially interested in the whirling. At any rate, the friendliness by far overshadowed the plain-ness of the place and the food seemed fresh, interesting and, most importantly, flavorful. Nice to see that other CHs have been there.

                    1. re: merrymc

                      merrymc, lucky you! the first time i went, we were guided through the menu, ordered quite well, and were very happy. the second time, we had virtually no input from the staff, and ordered blindly (and badly). i was hesitant to return last night, but was glad i did.

                      as before, i have to say that the kelewele is fantastic. stay away from the fried plantains, and far away from the steamed plantains, and get the kelewele. i have nothing to add the Peter's description in the original post above, except to say that the mixed caramelized spices are incredible, and yes, addictive.

                      i have to dissent with Steve R's assessment of the fufu. and granted, in our group of 10, i was the only one who seemed to really like it, but i thought it was fantastic--a smooth, gloopy, comforting base for all of the rich sauces. i far prefer it over the other ball of starch we got (the name of which escapes me) which is whiter, coarser in texture, and more fermented tasting.

                      the spinach stew is great, with rich deep flavor, and a fluffy component i can't figure out--scrambled eggs? mashed up tofu? the peanut stew is also lovely, creamy and subtle (and i hate peanuts).

                      despite his claims, Steve R was definitely in the lead, and i appreciate his work in getting us together--it was great to have a chance to sample so much great food with such a nice bunch.

                      1. re: rose water

                        Two of the times I went the guy who was "waiting" on me was the son of the woman who was cooking at the time. However, he pointed out he was just waiting tables because he had come to collect something (food?) from his mother and she put him to work. Or something like that. He actually sat down with me and explained what times of day I should eat everything for maximum results on my state of health and energy level (paging Dr. Weil...). It was interesting, but not something I'd invest all my faith in. I was naturally wary he would try to get me to order the most expensive thing on the menu, but he didn't.
                        I'm glad you all had a good time...sounds fun!

                  2. The fermented white thing was kenkey, made from white corn flour. I prefer it to fufu, but that's not saying much. It was, however, much better than the kenkey I had at a Ghanaian place in D.C. I think the kenkey is cooked in a banana leaf, but not served in it.

                    It was a great meal, again. The Ghanaian peanut butter soup was better than the different peanut soup I had last time, which I think was the Ivorian arachide. The spinach was fantastic, though I could live without bovine culinary dermatology & podiatry.

                    I agree that the white yams were wonderful. The joloff rice was good too, somewhat reminiscent of a biryani. I didn't touch the fufu, which reminds me of Steve McQueen's co-star in the Blob (and I'm not talking about Aneta Corsaut). I also didn't touch the boiled plantains or the plain white rice.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Peter Cherches

                      just wanted to add my two cents and thanks for being included!

                      I work with a Ghanian and the culture of the place, from my descriptions to him, is defintely authentic. "You can't be in a hurry in Ghana," he said. I preferred the kenkey to fufu, but I did like fufu, and I liked attieke (the granulated slightly sour cassava which went great with the fish) best. The boiled yam was also delicious. The fish here was extremely fresh and a great bargain for those wanting to eat a beautiful whole fish regardless of cuisine; the red savory sauce with it was delicious. I was also a fan of goat in peanut butter soup.

                    2. I really wanted to try La Marmite, but when I got out of the subway, my feet took me back to Florence's. Third time there. A big, happy table of Ghanaians, and all had ordered the same dish. What is it, I asked. Light soup. Oh I dont want anything light, I said. No it's not light that's just the name, they replied. So I ordered it. It was indeed light (but with a lot of palm oil), and it was basically a scrumptious intensely flavored chicken soup. And they let me order kelewele as the free side dish even though it's not on the list of free sides! I love this place.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Brian S

                        Hey, Florence could become the female African Dom DeMarco.

                      2. Someone on another thread wrote that this place is CLOSED! Sad day, if true. I phoned their number (from here in the wilds of Oklahoma) and got a recording that 212-531-0387 has been temporarily disconnected. Is it temporary or gone for good??

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: Brian S

                          They closed the location a couple of months ago but I heard (I think from "eating in translation") that she's opening soon in a close-by location. We're planning on going when she does.

                          1. re: Steve R

                            In the meantime a great bet is Meytex Cafe in Flatbush. Also promising from a small sample is Mariam's in Clinton Hill.

                            http://petercherches.blogspot.com

                            1. re: Peter Cherches

                              Had some vittles from Meytex tonight. Very good egushie stew. The okra stew was also very good, although not quite as good as what I've had from Florence's and South Beach Cafe, Meytex's meats were not quite as tender as at Florence's and SBC.

                              However, the proprietor is *extremely* friendly -- that's enough for me to make repeat trips.

                              I also liked the fact that she seemed pretty willing to prepare anything on the menu (this is unusual for the West African places in the city -- on any given day they usually only serve a few of the dishes advertised on the menu).

                              1. re: racer x

                                Yeah, the egushie at Meytex is great.

                        2. Any news as to when they may be re-opening at a new location?