Bissap Baobap remains the one restaurant, when amongst a group of friends deciding what to do for dinner, whose suggestion is never vetoed -- it has something for everyone. There is something about the Bissap Baobap experience that keeps it in a special place and keeps you going back. Maybe it's owner Marco Senghor’s genuine and warm smile as you walk in the door. You feel like he’s known you for years and is welcoming you into his home for a great dinner. Maybe it's looking around and seeing the great diversity of people, indicative of this fair city, all coming together and sharing in breaking bread. Perhaps it's the fact that all pretentiousness gets left at the door in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Maybe it's the halo surrounding the expertly crafted exotic cocktails. Mostly though, it's a hearty, down-to-earth meal in a vibrant and exciting atmosphere where you leave smiling and full and ready to take on the rest of the night that lies at its doorstep.
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Manresa
Reviewed Bissap Baobab: Saturday, October 29, 2005
Bissap Baobab, located on Mission near 17th Street, is a bar serving Senegalese food. Bissap has a unique atmosphere. As you walk in, you can envision neighborhood bands playing there, next to the giant inflated cloth dragon (or tree?) in the entrance, which is decorated with ropes of Christmas lights. Everyone there appeared to be having a great time, whether or not they have imbibed the lethally strong ginger cocktails. In college, I might have really liked this place, at least the drinks anyway.
The food, however, is not as appealing. The pastelles appetizer consisted of two pieces of deep-fried pastry filled with ground beef and topped with an onion-tomato relish. Although described as “spicy” on the menu, the relish was simply just sour from too much vinegar. The dumpling-like pastries themselves were not bad, even though they were too reminiscent of Hot Pockets and the meat filling was a bit too salty. The single chicken leg that came with the Yassa, one of the main dishes I tried, was tender and flavorful but also overwhelmed by the same overly sour onion relish piled on top. I was glad for the couscous on the side, which was fluffy and well prepared, especially since there was so little chicken on the dish.
The second entrée I tried, the Seafood Coconut, was a complete disappointment. There was a quite a bit of shrimp -- at least eight or ten on each of the two skewers -- but they were tough, rubbery, and flavorless, not to mention not very well peeled. The rice on the side was gummy and cold, and the soggy coconut pieces were too large to eat comfortably with either the shrimp or the rice. The peanut sauce covering the entire dish somehow managed to be overly peanutty and flavorless at the same time.
For dessert, I ordered Thiakry, which is a Senegalese yogurt made with vanilla, nutmeg, milk, couscous, and garnished with raisins. Although somewhat unappetizing in appearance, this was the best dish of the meal. The vanilla and nutmeg were very pleasant in the yogurt, which had the texture of tapioca pudding due to the couscous. In lieu of coffee, the restaurant serves hot homemade ginger juice, which tastes like sweet, strong herbal tea.
I was also somewhat taken aback by some parts of the service. Even though Bissap is a casual place, I am not used to someone coming to clear our plates while they still have dirty plates in hand from the nearby table they had just cleared. This could not be excused under the guise of efficiency since (1) the restaurant was not that crowded; and (2) they still left our dirty appetizer plates, which had never been cleared since before the entrées were delivered to the table. Otherwise, the service was quite friendly.
Bissap Baobab is fairly inexpensive, with appetizers ranging from $4 to $9, main dishes ranging from $8 to $12, and desserts in the $5 range. While I liked the festive atmosphere at Bissap, I was not thrilled with the food.
Occupation: Hospitality and Lifestyle Marketing Consultant
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Piperade
Reviewed Bissap Baobab: Friday, October 29, 2005
Occasionally, I boast to anyone who will listen about all the restaurants I’ve been to in San Francisco. I fancy myself to be a walking Zagat’s guide and I love giving my ratings and recommendations. So when Bissap Baobab was assigned to me for a Check, Please! review, I was excited. A restaurant I had never been to in the Mission with West African food -- the adventure was about to begin. I choose two pals to join me, who I trusted would be open to trying something new. In the week that preceded my visit, I mentioned Bissap Baobab to a lot of people and I was impressed about how many had heard of it and really enjoyed it. I visited the website and liked the inviting, warm spirit of it: “people are invited to gather under the reach of Bissap Baobab’s branches to celebrate life.” In need of a celebration, I scheduled the date and off we went.
The night started off well. We were nervous about parking but found a lot one block from the restaurant for $10 bucks all night. We loved this. We arrived and we were immediately taken in by the place, its funky look, the Bohemian people, and the wonderful-looking gentlemen working the room. The room belonged right where it is -- in the heart of the Mission. As we walked to the table, I took it all in as a concerning thought nagged at me, “GOD, I’M GETTING OLD." In truth, I really do think I was the oldest person in the room, but hey, I still fancy myself to be a pretty hip guy, so I thought I would blend right in. I was wrong.
We were seated for about a minute when the first of our tag team of servers arrived to take our order. There was no attempt to ask if we had any questions or wanted any recommendations. When we did ask a few questions, she answered efficiently. We asked about cocktails, and our server suggested the two most popular drinks in the place. We went for them. Hot ginger was the closest thing to hot tea that was available for one of my friends who was feeling coldish.
The nagging feeling was getting stronger -- I swear I was getting older by the minute -- as little things started to annoy me. It was obvious that the quick and abrupt service didn’t matter to anyone else in the room. It was part of the Baobab experience and it was okay with everyone else around us. In record time, our cocktails and appetizers arrived and were dropped on the table. We had a quick toast, in keeping with the theme of the evening, and dug in. We loved the pastelles, deep-fried (but then again who doesn’t love anything deep fried?) pasty pockets filled with beef (you can also get tuna, feta, or spinach fillings) smothered in a tasty tomato sauce. The fried plantains lacked crunch and were too greasy. The wonderful Salade Dakaroise was fresh and abundant. The mix of ingredients worked, and the house vinaigrette was exceptional -- my friends tried to figure out the secret ingredient with each bite. As we were finishing our appetizers, the entrées arrived, and I was beginning to think we were being challenged to speed dine. A weird and awkward moment occurred here, as it became our problem when we still had our appetizer dishes on the table, and there was no room for the entrées. Another of the server tag team just stood there while we took last bites and made room. At the same moment my friend, who was seated near the aisle, had his chair knocked for about the fifth time. He’s only 30 but I knew he felt old, too.
The entrées were disappointing. Somehow, we all thought that we were going to experience new flavors and spices, but we felt the dishes were bland and all tasted the same. The best for us was the Yassa with chicken. The lemon, garlic, mustard sauce over the couscous was nice, and the chicken was cooked well. Seafood Coconut was okay too. The dish that really disappointed us was the Joalienne. The texture was mushy, and it was really overcooked. In fairness to the restaurant, maybe this is how the dish was supposed to taste and it just didn’t work for us. While enjoying the entrées a series of kooky events occurred. The table next to us was seated and in order for the gal to get to her seat, she all but sat on our entrées. Our area was so crowded that when her cocktail arrived, she reached for something on the table and her cocktail ended up in my lap. She apologized. I was a little grouchy, but accepted with a smile, starting to feel more and more like my father. Once our entrée dishes were cleared, the tag team missed a beat and we waited a really long time for someone to ask about dessert. The final server of the night arrived and asked, “Did anyone offer you dessert yet?” We said no, and she asked, “So do you want it?” We ordered the chocolate soufflé and the Thiaky, a Senegalese yogurt dish. We had split opinions on the yogurt. "Why end a meal with a breakfast food?" was my big question. We all liked the soufflé.