It is rare that I dine at a restaurant where I have no idea what to expect, so I approached Safari Restaurant's doors with an open mind and an open belly. Safari inhabits a former Coldstone Creamery in Midtown and the space is essentially unchanged. I sat at one of the long brown tables, the lone diner, and flipped through the menu, trying to get a sense of the cuisine.
Ugali with spicy soup ($10), mandazi ($1.50) and chicken sugar ($10.99) had me reaching for my phone to do some investigating. Ugali is an East African staple, a doughy starch made of cornmeal and eaten with sauces or stews. Mandazi is fluffy fried bread that is slightly sweet, which makes it versatile enough to eat for breakfast, as an accompaniment to savory meals or sprinkled with cinnamon for dessert. Chicken sugar had me completely flummoxed; the weirdest things kept popping up on the search engine.
Finally, I asked my server, and she pronounced it for me; "suqaar" is what should be written on the menu, a dish of diced meats and vegetables that is typically eaten communally with flatbread and rice. In fact, Somali dining is mostly a group affair. People show up, eat from a shared platter, usually with their hands, and then go about their day.
I realized I was doing it all wrong, eating by myself, but I changed my mind about that when my order of samosas came (two for $3). Then I was glad I didn't have to share with anybody. The samosas were delicious little triangles of fried pastry filled with a fragrant combination of ground beef, spices and chopped vegetables. My server brought out a little cup of green hot sauce and the top of my head almost blew off.
It was hot. Really hot. But so good and so addicting that I found myself pouring this sauce on everything. The sauce is basically distilled chili peppers with the addition of garlic, vinegar and cilantro. I was starting to sweat, and still I ate every last drop of it. I ordered the kebabs ($10) for my entrée with a side of chapatti. The other side choices are rice, spaghetti and macaroni, which may seem odd until one takes into account Somalia's coastal location. France, Great Britain, Italy, India, Pakistan and the Middle East have all influenced Somali cuisine.
My kebabs had good flavor but were a little on the burned side. They were accompanied by a vegetable medley, reminiscent of school lunches (lima beans, green beans, diced carrots, onions and corn) and which I found oddly comforting. The whole meal reminded me of visiting someone's home, if that person lived in a former ice cream shop.
The best person to bring on a restaurant review is a fellow restaurant reviewer. On my next visit, I recruited Spencer Shroyer to be my communal platter person. I even generously let him have one of the samosas, which were just as wonderful the second time around.
He ordered the chicken shawarma ($5.99) and I opted for the beef suqaar ($10.99). The shawarma was a feast of diced chicken, with lettuce, tomatoes and creamy sauce wrapped in a thinner version of the chapatti. It was really filling, an excellently sized portion for the price. I requested more of the green sauce, which I'm convinced would make shoe leather palatable. Drizzled on the beef suqaar, it enhanced the tender meat and vegetables, bringing out more of the dish's flavor.
In the spirit of Somali dining, we shared everything; we tore off pieces of the excellent chapatti and used it to scoop up the meat and sauce. Safari is casual, relaxed and a great place to explore new foods with old friends.
By Riza Brown
Daily News correspondent