It's not every day that one gets to eat a giant snail.
Ditto yam porridge or fried plantains or palm juice. Not around these parts, anyway. But all that changed about a year ago, when husband-and-wife team Koffo and Kike Osun opened African Palace Bar and Grill, a funky restaurant/nightclub/catering business located in a strip mall just north of West Florissant Avenue and Interstate-270.
It's futile to try to categorize African food. Starches, and especially root vegetables, are a primary focus, with greens, meats (or giant snails) and vibrant seasonings providing seemingly infinite variety. But throw in the centuries-old input from the various Western cultures that carved the continent, and you've got a truly polyglot cuisine. The menu at African Palace is moderate, boasting ten entrées. The dishes betray mostly West African influences -- notably the use of starchy tubers such as cassava and yams, bananas and plantains. Nigerian and coastal West African cuisines make ample use of chilies, and they're in good supply here as well.
Many of the restaurant's offerings are "peppered" with a sauce made from red bell peppers, onion, tomatoes, olive oil and lots of atarodo peppers. These are small red-orange peppers that aren't as deadly hot as their big brother, the habañero. The sauce is employed liberally in many of the entrées and most of the appetizers, from soups to gizzards to wings and that giant snail. In a starter of fried pepper fish, for example, the hot sauce was slathered over a large, overcooked salmon steak. It's a pleasant heat, one that starts out mild, then emerges on the back of the tongue and spreads. It's only after the second bite that you realize: My, this is hot.
One of the main plates, jollof, featured a mound of rice, heady and aromatic with sage and bay leaves, topped with fried chicken wings, plantains and a generous dollop of the chili-spiked sauce. Like most of the entrées, this one was prepared with one's choice of chicken, beef or fish, along with plantains or mixed vegetables. Here the wings -- the chicken option in every dish -- were dry and disappointing; thighs or drumsticks probably would have worked better.
Special fried rice with jumbo shrimp was a bit of a misnomer. The rice was steamed, not fried, and mixed with boiled shrimp and your basic frozen-vegetable medley of peas, carrots, corn and green beans. On the side were hunks of beef in the ubiquitous pepper sauce. Beef and other meats aren't common in West Africa; they're typically used sparingly and they're often tough. But this meat had been simmered like pot roast, rendering it tender and flavorful. Alongside the rice, it made for a satisfying if unremarkable combination.
Another fish-and-meat entrée, dubbed simply the African Palace Daily Special, proved to be a brightly flavored stew that united dried cod, chicken and tripe with greens and the rich pepper sauce. This dish was served traditional-style, with a mound of pounded yam, a bland mashed-potato-like substance used to soak up the sauce between bites of stew. (In Africa, this dish is typically eaten with one's hands, which probably accounts for the generous supply of soap in the restaurant's restrooms.)
Yam porridge, served with steamed spinach mixed with pepper sauce and chicken, beef or fish and topped with sunflower seeds, was another starchy selection. One member of our party loved the big mound of flavorful bright-orange mashed yam (not really porridge) but found the pungent sauce a little too much for the spinach. Here again, the meat was an accent, not the focal point of the dish.
Even for the adventuresome gastronome, African food and its riot of flavors can be an acquired taste. So it was that we approached the snail appetizer with a determined but apprehensive resolve. For one thing, this sucker is really big. At African Palace it's sliced into several large chunks that when chewed have the consistency and earthy flavor of a dried porcini mushroom. The snail's pronounced smoky flavor was barely subdued by the pepper sauce in which it was bathed. "Where does one procure a giant African snail?" we inquired of Mrs. Osun. "From Africa," she replied. Makes perfect sense. Although the giant slug is considered a landscape nuisance in most countries, in some places it's a delicacy. A repeat order, however? Probably not.
African Palace doesn't serve dessert, which is a shame, really; spicy foods go well with a sweet ending. The wine selection is best ignored, but that's fine because African food goes better with beer anyway, and there's plenty of that. (You won't find any African beer, though, such as the hoppy Tusker pilsner. Too bad.) The big bottle of Nigerian palm juice is also worth a try. It's refreshing and tastes something like a flat malty beverage.
I learned about African Palace at Jay International Market, where I overheard an African man tell a recent immigrant that this restaurant is the place to go in St. Louis for authentic African food. It also seems to be a good place to catch favorite African television shows on tape: During a recent visit, diners were intently watching a popular soap opera. The scene reminded me of the days when folks would gather in bars to watch Friends or Seinfeld. Unfortunately, another set nearby was showing something else, and the competing broadcasts made conversation difficult.
The place isn't fancy, but the Osuns have taken pains to make it inviting. They've done much of the work themselves, retrofitting the restaurant that used to occupy the space with a large dance floor where reggae and world-beat music draws throngs on weekend nights. African Palace holds even more potential as a destination spot as the Osuns continue the decorating and physical improvements. For now, the exotic and flavorful dishes alone are worth the trip.