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Walk into Yolele, the new Senegalese bistro in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and the experience causes a moment of awed shock.

Everything from the tables and benches, to the dramatic floor-to-ceiling artwork is imposing. A long bench, carved from a single tree by a Senufo craftsman, serves as both a seating area and an unusual centerpiece. The leaves of giant plants cast shadows about the room, creating a second layer of visual appeal.

But the most extraordinary piece is a wooden statue that stretches to the ceiling.

The sculpture is a tribute to Mami Wata, a goddess of the sea, who, according to African folklore, bestows blessings on those she favors. If someone has sinned, or worse, hasn’t shown the respect this high-maintenance goddess demands - watch out.

Mami Wata has cast her blessings over Yolele (Yo-LAY-lee). You can feel her spirit in the gracious welcome as you enter. Her warmth is evident in the serene pace and gentle service of the wait staff. But it is in chef Pierre Thiam’s Senegal-based global cooking that Mami Wata is keenly sensed.

Yolele, which opened on Fulton Street in January, is the product of three Senegalese partners - Thiam and co-owners Fallou Ndaw and Moussa Diadhiou. Thiam, who spent seven years as the chef de cuisine of Boom, in SoHo, and is a sought-after restaurant consultant, creates dishes he describes as "world cuisine - predominantly African, influenced by France, Vietnam and Morocco."

The meal transports the diner to the Ivory Coast with the exotic, mouth-tingling "Pepesoup." The soup begins with a fish stock reduced until it is creamy. Slices of velvety tilapia (a mild white fish) add sweetness; Scotch bonnet chilies lend a bright heat that’s sharpened with lime. Yolele’s bread looks like birch tree bark with its brittle, crunchy crust. A slice of that bread, dipped into the "Pepesoup," is a sensory memory in the making.

One great moment in a meal peppered with high points happened after tasting the peanut sauce that accompanied skewered slices of succulent lamb. To the mix of peanuts and peanut butter, Thiam adds coconut milk, lemongrass and curry. The flavor is nutty, tart and multi-layered with sweet and smoky spices. Thiam employs the Scotch bonnet chili again, using it to add fire to this complex sauce.

Moist Moroccan meat patties made from highly-spiced ground beef, called kefta, came with a plate-mate of ruby red peppers. Thiam grills the peppers until they’re soft and sweet then cooks them with tomato sauce and a lot of garlic. Visually, the dish resembles an Italian pepper salad, but its flavor is different. Scotch bonnet peppers add little heat this time, but the chilies serve to deepen each ingredients’ character.

Every restaurant needs a signature dish and the "Couscous Royal" is Yolele’s. A lamb shank, so long and slowly cooked that the meat falls from the bone, perches over a pillow of fluffy, nutty tasting couscous (tiny bits of semolina). Chili-enhanced slices of beef and lamb sausage, called merguez, and long slices of carrots and turnips crown the couscous. All of the perfectly cooked meat is drizzled with a sauce of meat juices flavored with cinnamon, cumin, cilantro and parsley, that manage to showcase each of its ingredients without overpowering one another. More of the sauce is served on the side. You won’t need it, but my guess is you’ll use it anyway.

There’s no way a salmon filet, even one dressed up with spinach, mint and fermented black beans over couscous, could compete with a dish like the lamb extravaganza. This salmon was slightly overcooked yet still tasty, but the black bean sauce didn’t have much oomph.

On Yolele’s dessert roundup is a pastry that shouldn’t be missed. Thiam rolls a paper-thin crust for a French tart that tastes of fresh butter. He tops that ethereal crust with thin slices of tart apple and mango then burnishes the fruit with browned butter infused with fresh ginger. The mango adds a supple texture and a note of cinnamon, while the apple keeps the dessert clean tasting.

It’s delectable.

The tart comes with a scoop of ordinary vanilla ice cream that makes a fine partner. Anything fussier would be overkill.

Two hours passed from the time we entered Yolele, to the time dessert and coffee arrived. The room settled into a peaceful quietness, with the music turned low and diners lingering over their meals. Near me, a little boy, covered with his father’s coat, slept on the wooden bench.

In the Fulani language, Yolele means "spirit of joyfulness." That’s just how we felt walking into the cold evening air knowing that Mami Wata’s blessing went with us.


Yolele (1108 Fulton St. between Classon and Franklin avenues in Bedford-Stuyvesant) accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover. Entrees: $10-$13.50. Dinner and lunch are served seven days a week. Brunch is served from 11 am to 4 pm Saturdays and Sundays. For reservations, call (718) 622-0101.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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