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Kanishka

Benin and elsewhere in West Africa

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Don and I had a nice discussion about the fact that I haven't written about my dining experiences in Benin.  I have to hand it to him -- if you accept the base premise, that the internet has permanence (and I do buy this), his arguments about writing about the most minor dining experiences have value.  It doesn't have to be restaurant criticism of the highest form.  It's social anthropology.  At least that's how it feels to me.  And so:  I'll try, now with three kids under four (what have I done) to write about dining out in Benin.

A caveat.  Almost every restaurant review about restaurants in Cotonou, Benin's largest city, could be written as such:

"High quality local seafood.  Unpredictable service.  Bad wine, stick to beer.  Go with simple and you won't be disappointed.  Be patient.  Be adventurous eventually but take your time.  When in doubt, get shrimp."

That said, there are variations, some notable.  So I'll try to do more writing about the eating we've been doing in Benin.  And if you are headed my way, let me know!

 

 

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Tripadvisor consistently ranks Shamiana as one of the top restaurants in Benin. and in Cotonou specifically.  They are not wrong, though the competition is hardly fierce.  Still, finding an high-quality Indian restaurant in Francophone West Africa was a pleasant and welcome surprise.

In general, we have stuck to northwestern and western Indian food here.  My eldest has a fondness for the butter chicken, which my spice-challenged wife also gets often enough.  If you've got a light diner on your hands portions are large enough to share.  The lamb rogan josh is also excellent.

Me?  I move around, though I love starting with a roasted masala papad, a papadam smothered in garam masala, raw onions, tomatoes, and cilantro.  I'm also a fan of their shrimp dishes -- there are three shrimp curries that are wonderful, though it has been a few weeks so forgive me for not remembering the names specifically.  The biryani, especially the seafood biryani, is served in a traditional pot topped with baked dough, in the old north Indian way.  It's a must have (though maybe for a repeat trip and not your first.)  Ive also enjoyed the selection of kabobs, especially Peshawari, and the saag paneer.  

Shamiana does try to be "pan-Indian." with dosas, idli, vada, etc on the menu.  We've only gone as far as the idli so far, which my son enjoyed but I found a bit on the underfermented side.  The sambar was good but not sour enough.

One peculiarity about Shamiania -- you are asked to provide a spice-level, 1-10, for any dish you order.  So in theory you could get butter chicken with a "spice level" of 10, super hot, which just doesn't make sense.  I have found this numerical system inconsistent, as some dishes I've asked to be spiced at 9 or 10 are quite easy to take down, while I had a shrimp dish at 7 once that was pretty darn hot.  My wife never strays above 2, and the staff will push back on you if you order hot, so be prepared.  It took two minutes of convincing -- in Bengali, with the owner's assistant and a co-linguist of mine, no less -- for them to agree to give me something above an 8.

Like many random expatriates not connected with the diplomatic or NGO world, I have no idea how Shamiana's owner, Suresh Bhojwani, ended up in Benin.  He's a Mumbai native but speaks French quite well (with an Indian accent, which is weird to hear.)  He is over-the-top nice and it's not a show.  He remembers and cares for his regulars like family, something I have been surprised to not see so much of in some of the lower-quality places in Cotonou.  For the visitor, the other nice thing about Shamiana, which is not true everywhere:  you can order, communicate, etc, completely in English if you want.

I'll spare you geography as roads in Cotonou are barely named and quite confusing at times, but Shamiana is a known hangout for many and very popular so if you want to go, just ask.  It is also located on one of the very worst roads in Benin entier, not just in Cotonou, and that is saying something. If you have a low-clearance vehicle, bonne chance.  I've seen it done but it isn't easy.

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One of the roads between Cotonou and the old slave-trading center of Ouidah is the Route des Pêches, an unpaved sand road that starts at the official end of Cotonou, past the Erevan supermarket.  The road skirts the ocean, providing a glimpse into the seaside village life that has sustained this part of Benin since la nuit des temps.  The road is also dotted with various beach shacks available to rent for a day or a year, and a smattering of restaurants.

Romuald Hazoumè is one of Benin's premier living artists.  He's also owner of what I would say is the best restaurant (with some caveats) on the Route, Wado (wa-DO), which in the local dialect of Fon I am told means "Come!"  Wado is about 3/4 of the way to Ouidah, and the ride there is bumpy but quite fun.  Drive down the Route and once you pass the Club du Roi (the King Club, you can't miss it, look out for the illogical collection of miscellaneous flags), watch to your left for a set of beach shacks with tables set up for dining, and a surfboard hung sideways, the name "Wado" painted on it.  

Take your pick of any number of wooden tables and chairs, handmade and weatherbeaten, sitting in the sand.  Take your sandals off and stick your feet in the sand (what, you wore shoes?  That's crazy!)  Get a cold beer, or a fresh squeezed pineapple juice, and watch the scary, rough surf and the inevitable Lebanese bros braving the insane undertow to catch a good wave.  (I'm told, actually, that this is one of the safer stretches of the coast, but the undertow is still scary enough that I don't go in past my knees.)  If you've brought kids, break out the beach toys.  The menu is short and ordering is easy: get fresh seafood, because Romuald prides himself on the fact that Wado doesn't have a refrigerator and sources all of its meat and fish in the early morning from local providers.  This does mean that sometimes what you want (giant prawns, langoustine, etc) may not be available, but it does guarantee your food will be straight out of the sea.  I've never had it, but I'm told even the chicken is quite fresh.

Order your food, and then wait.  Play in the water, or in the sand.  Read a book.  You'll be waiting a while, because everything is cooked á la minute -- that's the caveat about this otherwise great spot.  Waits can stretch to 45 minutes or so, so plan accordingly.  If this is a repeat visit or you can track down their ever-changing phone number, you can always call ahead to minimize your wait time, but I'd only advise this after you've been here once or twice and know the menu well.

Our go-to dishes at Wado are the fresh fish filet, the fish skewers, the poisson tahitien (basically, a crudo, made in part with coconut milk), and anything involving shrimp or langoustine.  The langoustine is pricey at 9,000 FCFA (a little less than $15 at current exchange rates) but is excellent, grilled with garlic and butter and a bit of salt and pepper.  Get it with the haricots verts and pommes frites and dine happily, waves crashing in front of you and sand between your toes.

For larger groups, you can get a large or small plateau of grilled fish and vegetables.  This is basically a large plank of wood covered in fresh seafood and vegetables, with roasted potatoes and frites.  It comes in a 30K FCFA and 60K FCFA size.  We've never ordered this as we haven't gone in a large enough group of pescaphiles (is that a word?) to warrant it, but I've seen it and it looks like a thing of dreams.  Macquarie (pronounced "Ma-KAY"), the manager, highly recommends calling ahead if you're getting a plateau.

Romauld has told me Wado was once quite larger, and that unpredictable tides, freak storms (climate change? maybe?), and a weakened Beninese economy have all hurt his business.  The environmental issues can't be ignored.  According to Romauld, one heavy storm, of the type rarely seen in this part of the world, washed half of his restaurant into the sea.  But they are surviving, and I'm always to see a healthy mix of locals and expats when we eat here. 

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Unbelievable... not only have I not written in months, but my initial posts did not include Livingstone, which is as close as you can get to the social center of the world for the expat community in Benin.

Perhaps I haven't written because there isn't much to say.  The food is... fine.  The pizzas are among the best you can get in Benin (not saying much), the burger is so-so, the fish and shrimp dishes are always good.  I'm partial to the poisson pané, mainly because I find fried, breaded fish to be one of the world's greatest hot sauce delivery vehicles.  At Livingstone, like so many other places in Benin, that hot sauce is piment, a puree of local pepper that comes in green or red.  At Livingstone it's pretty hot, and always red.

Two notable things about Livingstone.  First: everyone knows it.  It's a must-visit for the expat crowd, and at any given night you are bound to see someone you know (tonight, for me, a Swiss diplomat, my deputy, and a random American who I didn't know but who said hi when she heard our accents.  Yeah, it's that kind of place.)  Second, and related to the first, is that the service is always unfailingly kind (if not the speediest).  Oh, and a third thing I guess:  they have a high chair!  One of four I've seen at restaurants in Benin.  I'll take it.

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If you're in Benin, you must find your way to the Palaces of Abomey, a UNESCO world heritage site and the ancient capitol of the Fon people.  It's a long-ish drive from Cotonou, about 2.5 hours, but it's easy and practically required for those with time to venture north of the coast.  Sadly, the town of Abomey has seen better days, clearly having gone from the abode of kings to a mostly run-down, mostly empty village.  There's nothing to see beyond the palaces and the one statue, and there's nowhere to eat.

Based on two experiences, it's better to dine in neighboring Bohicon, about 30 minutes west of Abomey.  You have to turn left at Bohicon to get to Abomey anyway, so why not stop to eat?  Today we stopped at La Palmeraie, oddly listed on Facebook as a Lebanese restaurant even though nothing on the menu resembled Lebanese food.  It's just before the main carrefour of Bohicon, on your left before the gas station.  You'll see a sign for the restaurant, and also a sign for the mysterious Hotel le Tennessee, a place I sadly did not have time to visit.

Le Palmeraie is clean, the service is attentive (though meals come out slooooowly), and the bathrooms are great.  We were a group of five and were in a hurry, so everyone ordered the tasty, if not very meaty, chicken.  I had mine with amiwo, a variation of a dish called pâte in the sense of paste, not pasta.  Other varieties of pâte are kind of ehh, but amiwo has spice, salt, and stock to make it a tasty side for simple dishes.  It's made of cornmeal, and you can definitely see how it (and frankly, all the other types of pâte) have influenced the cuisine of the American South.  With a bit of smashed pepper (piment, never spicy enough) the meal hit the spot.  If you're not in the mood for chicken, there were a number of pizzas on the menu, and the wood-fired oven was ready and waiting for an order.

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