For one of the city’s best Central Park sunsets, drop by Teranga at the Africa Center for a leisurely $20 meal.
Trapezoidal windows afford patrons a panoramic view of the park at twilight. Buses and taxis zoom southward on Fifth Avenue, as cast iron lamps glow behind them. Inside, communal tables are draped in pink, blue, and yellow cloths, while artist Ezra Wube’s stop motion animations of African dishes project onto the walls. Woven baskets sit with their tops slightly askew. Fela Kuti, the Nigerian instrumentalist, pipes through the sound system. And diners nibble on chef Pierre Thiam’s fufu, giant spheres forged from plantains and red palm oil, watching as the sky turns pink.
Some type away on MacBooks with their legs stretched out as though they’re in a college dorm; each windowsill is outfitted with cushions for lounging. If a typical fast-casual spot recalls a chic cafeteria, Teranga, located just south of West 110th Street, feels like a rich friend’s living room, albeit an exceedingly hospitable one that’s open to the public.
But those looking for a place in the neighborhood to swing by for a quicker lunch might consider JJ Johnson’s FieldTrip, located just half a mile away on Malcolm X Boulevard. Johnson doesn’t root his cooking in a particular geographical region; rather, he uses rice as a lens through which to reinterpret myriad global culinary traditions. His gumbo channels the American South while tipping its hat to China and Southeast Asia, all while jolting diners with as much seafaring flavor as a fancy lobster reduction.
And his vegan rice-milk soft serve stands to become a cool New York summer staple.
It seems, at times, that burgeoning salad-and-grain chains are winning the city’s bowl wars, with app-connected lunch spots opening where independent restaurants used to operate, and with $15 arugula bowl institutions popping up across from the nearest SoulCycle or Equinox.
But the success of Teranga, which opened last winter, and FieldTrip, which debuted last summer, speaks to a different and more promising strain of the counter-service movement — a growing class of establishments where independent-minded chefs are figuring out a way to provide ambitious and sometimes creative or underrepresented wares at very fair prices. One thinks of Amanda Cohen’s smashingly excellent vegan burgers at Lekka, the nimble northeastern Thai fare of Chicks Isan, or the western Chinese staples of Xi’an Famous Foods. And, most promisingly, they’re seeking to do it at scale.
The Harlem-based Teranga and FieldTrip are already primed to sprinkle across the city. Teranga in particular, which Thiam co-founded with entrepreneur Noah Levine, has two more locations planned in the coming months, one in the DeKalb Market Brooklyn and the other in a not-yet-disclosed space.
The myriad cuisines of Africa, of course, already pepper the metropolitan culinary landscape; the city is home to around 60 West African restaurants, a number of them located on the “Petit Senegal” neighborhood around 116th Street. What makes Teranga stand out from the pack, apart from its cushy environs, are the expansive transnational influences — ranging from West Africa to Morocco to the Eastern Horn.
But perhaps the most striking thing about Teranga is that it simply exists where it does, near 110th Street at the bottom of an apartment building where units sell for $2 million to $15 million. A particular bane of modern city life is that shiny mixed-use developments tend to attract bland, expensive restaurants run by corporate-leaning chefs with scores of other bland, expensive restaurants. Yet here’s Teranga, an affordable African restaurant whose internationally renowned culinary figure hasn’t run a New York kitchen in nearly a decade; Thiam shuttered his acclaimed Le Grand Dakar in Clinton Hill in 2011.
The dining room acts as a canteen for the Africa Center, a small exhibition space that will expand into a full-fledged, 70,000-square-foot museum later next year. As at any fast-casual spot, diners line up, order, take things back to a table, and eat. A meal consists of a main ($12 chicken, $14 fish, or a $10 vegetable) plus three sides. Giant Le Creuset pots hold piles of efo riro, an umami-rich Nigerian stew forged from kale, locust bean, okra, and red palm. Ask for it as a side with Moroccan salmon, cooked to a silky medium rare. The fish bursts with luscious maritime oils but finds balance thanks to a crown of musky cumin and tart citrus.
Chicken yassa does the famous Senegalese dish justice. Cooks slather the thigh meat with onions left in the pan long enough to turn copper; lime juice imparts a brilliant sourness to the fatty, sweet flavors. Consider pairing it with peanut sauce-slathered fufu, the starchy West African staple made from pounding cassava, taro, yams, rice, or, as is the case at Teranga, plantains and palm oil. Fufu can often turn out fluffy and stretchy elsewhere — all the better for tearing and dunking into accompanying sauces — but here, it is wonderfully dense. The fruit gives the grapefruit-sized ball a pronounced sweetness, making it a fine counterpoint to the tart chicken.
But really, any meal here calls for joloff, the mainstay of Ghana, Sierra Leone, Senegal, and elsewhere. Traditionally, the dish takes the form of tomato- and chile-cooked rice. But Thiam prefers to use the ultra-fluffy fonio grain, a millet that assumes the size of tobiko and the texture of good couscous. Tomatoes add a hint of savoriness, while a spoonful of habanero salsa (in condiment glasses on every table) causes the stomach to glow for hours. Diners might also add a bit of shito, a paste of crawfish, chiles, stockfish, and shrimp that the kitchen reduces to the color of ink. It works funky, meaty wonders the way XO sauce might.
Teranga doesn’t sell alcohol, only coffee and $5 juices, including a ginger-lime drink spicy enough to jumpstart a tractor-trailer, and an opaque blend of baobab (a gourd-like African citrus) and coconut puree. That latter drink, known as bouye, is tart, sweet, and fragrant. It is the only beverage here that seems to truly quell the heat of the chiles with any efficacy.
After lunch, some patrons open up their laptops and type away. Some folks don’t even eat; they simply come for coffee and pastries and to chat with a friend. That’s the amazing thing about Teranga and the Africa Center. In the typical New York universe, this space would be a pricey steakhouse or an oversized lobby for the condos above. Or if this were a Starbucks Reserve Roastery, one might expect $50 thermoses on sale while security guards eerily march around. And while one wonders whether the city truly needed another Robert A.M. Stern-designed building with multimillion-dollar apartments, there’s something to be said for making the ground floor of that building a place to relax and eat and exist and enjoy one of the best views in New York. It truly is a third place.
Chef JJ Johnson told Grub Street he pitched the concept of FieldTrip as a “global Chipotle.” He also told Eater that he has Sweetgreen-level ambitions for the chain. For now, there’s just one location, and it makes a stupendously good gumbo.
Pink broth singes the tongue, then perfumes the palate with brine. It smacks of good shellfish stock. Fresno chile heat adds a punch of bearable pain. Gumball-sized scallops and shrimp appear; they are soft and sweet. Then another tidal rush subsumes everything, courtesy of tiny dried shrimp — more common in Southeast Asian cooking than American-style gumbos. There’s also a slice or two of lap cheong, taking the place of classic andouille. The sugary wallop of the Chinese chicken sausage cleanses the palate of any oceanic funk.
Finally, one’s spoon finds little pearls of red rice hanging out near the bottom of the cup. They are firm and exude starchiness. The gumbo, resplendent with the flavors of the sea, would stand on its own without them, but the earthiness and creaminess add the type of depth one might hope for from a shaving of bottarga or caviar. Johnson tells me his broth, rather than adhering to the style of a dark roux Louisiana stew, has more in common with the lighter gumbos of Gullah Geechee cuisine.
The larger truth, of course, is that this multicultural creation is fully his own. It costs $8.
One hopes Johnson has finally found a permanent home here on Malcolm X Boulevard. The Cecil, which he helmed for nearly four-years, closed in 2016. He left sister spot Minton’s in 2017 and joined the Life Hotel in 2018 to run the Henry, where he focused on the foods of the global African diaspora. His reign lasted all of a year despite a bustling dining room and positive write-ups.
At FieldTrip, Johnson continues his freewheeling internationalism, dabbling in multitudinous traditions to show off a breathtaking variety of rice — all served in that portable feeding trough for workers known as the bowl. This isn’t a “let’s hang out all day” space like Teranga; the brick walls, stand-up tables, and bare-bones seating area equate to a space where one wants to get in and get out.
But much of the food is so good that it deserves a few bites before placing a plastic lid on top. Take the brisket bowl ($11). Johnson tops puffy Texas brown rice, almost as fat as farro, with chubby squares of soy-braised beef and hoisin-slicked collards. The meat is remarkably complex and soft, while the greens add a nutty saltiness. The rice does what it does best, sopping up anything delicious that drips downward. It is a Southwestern-Chinese-American answer to a Japanese donburi rice bowl and a very tasty creation, the type of thing David Chang wishes he could have thought up for Ando.
Crisp fried fluke ($12) sits atop a pile of herbed rice that tastes dry and undercooked at first. Then one adds tartar sauce and the grains come to life. The tangy dairy brightens the herbal chives and slicks the grains, allowing them to slide across the tongue with ease. And for coconut curry over sticky rice ($12), Johnson tosses in a few large shrimp, each packing the silky texture and flavor of the sea one hopes for at a fancy shellfish bar.
Even when the central protein is a failure, as is the case with dry nuggets of fried chicken breast slathered in cloying barbecue sauce ($10), rice saves the day. The kitchen tosses Carolina Gold long grains into a wok with soy and salty nuggets of squash. When mixed with soft collards, the preparation takes on the round, umami-laden flavor of good take-out fried rice. Pair this with an order of fritters: golden fried wontons ($7) stuffed with enough heady crab and cream cheese to make a classic rangoon preparation taste bland by comparison.
Nighttime diners will wash this down with a can of rosé or beer, but during the day, iced green tea will cleanse the palate. The only sweet is soft serve ($4.50), the dessert of choice for fast-casual and ambitious restaurants alike. This one is vegan, a blend of rice milk, raspberry, and hibiscus that’s more cool and light than full-on creamy — though the chill never devolves into iciness. It’s the proper antidote to that stomach-warming cup of gumbo.
FieldTrip, rather than taking on the ethos of yet another focus-group salad or chicken bowl from Chopt or Dig, feels like the type of ideas-driven venue one expects from a high-level contemporary chef, while the pan-African Teranga shows how welcoming a fast-casual venue could be. May they both expand throughout the city.