At 11:30 on Friday morning, Seligne Mbey yawns.
“Yes, this takes a lot of time and effort, but that’s what we live for,” says the 28-year-old chef.
After years of running Dakar NOLA as a pop-up, he and business partner Effie Richardson opened it in late November in a 30-seat jewel box space at 3814 Magazine St.
After more than five years of pop-ups, the pair were looking for a place to serve Mbaye’s French-savvy Senegalese and Creole cuisine.
“We had a hard time finding the place,” says the chef. “When we learned that this place had a garden, it opened up the experience for future expansion. We may offer a more casual menu one day. .”
Dakar NOLA offers only tasting menus, while Mbaye focuses on his prodigious talents, including restaurants such as New York’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and San Francisco’s three-starred Atelier. Techniques honed over the years in kitchens such as Crenn. Dakar’s tasting menu is $150 per person for his and changes frequently to reflect what’s fresh each season.
A recent Saturday’s menu included a version of traditional Senegalese tea topped with mint foam. The chef introduced what is known in Senegal as the ‘last meal’. This is a dish using black-eyed peas that were given to enslaved Africans before they were forced to cross the sea. Fonio salad is made with West African millet, finger limes and apple vinaigrette.
Joloff, a cousin of Dakar and New Orleans jambalaya, is a course, as is Yassa, a refined version of a spicy Senegalese dish made with habanero peppers, onions and, in this case, red snapper. Jerejeef for dessert is a free-form tart filled with Gambian rice he pudding, topped with Senegalese green tea ice cream.
While the restaurant is awaiting a liquor license, diners can bring in their own alcohol, subject to a $15 corkage fee.
The partners met in 2018 when pediatric dentist Richardson tasted Mbaye’s cuisine at a pop-up at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. “Dinner was sold out, but I called and he arranged a seat for me.”
With family roots in Ghana, Richardson is no stranger to supporting African entrepreneurs and artists. “I love Senegalese food and was very impressed with Serigne,” she says. She “wanted to host her party for dinner and share a taste of Senegal with her friends, so she asked Celine to cook.”
Early in the pandemic, Richardson decided to shift gears and began looking for its permanent home while helping the chef manage the pop-up’s logistics. “As I got to know him, I felt strongly that people really needed to try his cooking,” she says. “The world needs to experience the pride and food culture of West Africa.”
For Mbaye, his culinary evolution was driven by his travels and pop-ups. “Each experience pushed me forward,” he says. “I had to fight against the limitations and limitations of space that dictated what I could cook. It seemed to me.”
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He could have opened a restaurant anywhere, but putting down roots in New Orleans was a deliberate move. “New Orleans and Senegal have a lot in common,” he says. “The people here are kind, cheerful, and hospitable, and you can find that in Senegal. Food and music crossover. Both places know how to sit around the table and celebrate.”
Mbaye was born in New York, but spent part of his childhood in Senegal. After his return from Senegal, he moved to Harlem with his mother and helped her with her catering business. “It looked like I was peeling garlic for her and her onions, but fast forward, she came to my restaurant opening,” he says. “It was a bridge between us. It’s surreal.”
Culinary historian and James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Jessica Harris is Professor Emeritus at Queen’s College, New York, and Dillard University scholar. She’s been watching Mbaye’s rise to stardom for years, and she thinks it’s only natural for him to open a restaurant here.
“His ability to create lesser-known culinary connections between New Orleans and Senegal makes him a valuable and unique part of the city’s food scene,” says Harris.
“The average person can’t really imagine the many types of African food,” says Richardson. “There is no frame of reference. Those who trust the chef are pleasantly surprised by the familiarity of the food on their plate.”