African cuisine - with the exception of Moroccan couscous - is horribly overlooked in the Western eating-out scene. It is understandable that the odd county or principality, should be under-represented - Alaska, for example, Norway, the Falkland Islands - but not, surely, an entire continent. People don't know what to expect: monkey brains? Char-grilled locust? Gizzard? Grain? My potential dining companions went all slippery on the Calabash: "Won't you feel guilty eating in an African restaurant when so many babies are hungreee?" they worried. "Can't we do the Connaught instead, sweetie?" But the Calabash turned out to be atmospheric, relaxed and reasonable, with delicious food. We had a lovely time and two bottles of a wine called Flirt.
A conceptualised fake African restaurant chain might go for Gorillas in the Mist (mud-type walls, jungle, artificial gorillas), Out of Africa (mosquito nets, wind up record players, artificial lions) or The Sheltering Sky (sand). The Calabash has a more authentic African air of a hotel or conference centre built 30 years ago with money from the Japanese and gone slightly to seed.
The restaurant is in the basement of the Africa Centre. You enter past a shop selling carvings of giraffes and a meeting room, where a discussion on "Black African Women Accessing the Roots of their Own Power and Spirit" was in progress, and down a scuffed Sixties-style spiral staircase with a large African mural on the wall. The ceiling is of gently undulating polished wooden slats with bursts of uplit greenery round the edges. There are paintings of Masai warriors, pineapples and African women walking past breeze-block houses, and a dainty hint of incense.
At one end of the room is a bar, at the other a large photocopier. Two large businessmen, one black, one white, in matching suits and silver glasses were clearly preparing a deal to put in it. The room, with its lines of tables and batik cloths, was about a quarter full, there were two very pretty black girls, a couple of families and a modern-looking youth with flowing locks reading a book which was making him worry. There was also my friend Simon, flirting loudly with the waitress. He greeted me hungrily with the news that one of the starters was roast beef or, as the menu explained, "Roast beef (grilled beef)".
The menu, printed on green pages on top of bizarrely elongated maps of Africa, offers dishes from all over the continent, including such mysteries as tebbse, eba, egusi and doro wot (with accompanying explanations apart, for some reason, from eba), alongside more humdrum items: fish, chicken and salads.
From starters costing between £2 and £3, I plumped for the aloco (fried plantain served with hot tomato sauce) and my friend for sambusa (rather like samosa) with the gizzard as a floating novelty item. The plantain was scrumptious, cut into tiny cubes, with the sauce tasty but infernoesque unless sensibly used. The sambusas were nice enough but unexceptional, unlike the gizzard which looked like onion and tomato sauce with, well, fried medical waste. We thought gizzard was something you threatened to slash people's necks with, but it turned out to be stomach. It tasted reassuringly like normal meat. I ventured only a small mouthful but Simon gobbled the lot. Mind you I have seen Simon eat raw pigeon, declaring it cooked to perfection to avoid hurt feelings as blood dribbled down his chin.
There was a large range of main courses, from £4 to £8.50: Peanut Butter, with vege-table stew; North African couscous; Nigerian soup with meat, spinach, dried shrimp and pounded yam; a whole vegetarian section. As we were trying to make up our minds there was a sudden loud scraping of chairs overhead. The meeting about Power and Roots had clearly - and, we hoped, happily - reached a conclusion A silent baby popped up its head between the two pretty girls, then back down again. Our waitress advised us against the eba we fancied as a side dish, saying that it was sour so my friend ordered eba anyway.
Eba turned out not to be sour, but it was taste-free and exactly like the powdered glue which is made up with water in primary schools. Simon was very keen , though, on his Ivory Coast dioumbre - lamb stew cooked in palm oil and okra. Though I say it myself, my own choice of main dish was an absolute triumph - a bursting platter with delicately flavoured black-eye beans, crisp green salad, sweet potato chips, more fried plantain and a slightly spicy vegetable stew, all for £6.20.
I ordered ingera with it - a cold, fermented pancake used to eat with in Ethiopia like a chapatti. It has a refreshing, sour, beery tang, reminding you, in the most charming way possible, of eating with bits of bar towel.
The Flirt, a syrupy Zimbabwean ros at £7.50 a bottle, was oozing down a treat and we began boasting about our African experiences without listening to each other: "Sudan '86. Hell, that was some trip." "Yars, yars, well, of course, when I was in Zaire..." Our mood was hugely enhanced by the arrival of "Abyssinian coffee", the highlight of the meal. We were each given a round-based, blackened earthenware pot, balanced on a raffia ring, with a filter in the spout, Ethiopian style (except that the filter was made of plastic scourer, not twigs). The coffee, roasted and ground in the kitchen, smelt divine. Next, our waitress lit incense on the table in an ancient-looking silver stand.
As the exotic smoke engulfed the table, we sipped the rich coffee from little glass cups. Glancing round at the red velveteen benches by the door, the unused television in the corner, the baskets, the carvings, the photocopier, the fire door saying "Push Bar to Open", we could for all the world have been in the heart of Africa. On the way out, we both agreed the Calabash was a real find, a relaxed yet exotic culinary haven in the busy centre of London. "I tell you," my friend kept enthusing as we walked along, "that gizzard..."Reuse content