On one plate are chunks of steak, rimmed black and blushing, alongside scalloped potatoes, and on another, crimson rice infused with the deep, heart-pounding funk of guedj, fermented dried fish, and yete, sea snails buried in the sand, then dried in the sun, taste of brine, smoke and musk.
Every meal at Succulent, a modest bistro in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, unites West Africa and France. Mélanie Delcourt, the chef, grew up in Douala, Cameroon, and studied law in Paris before attending the famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and pursuing a career in high-end kitchens.
Five years ago, on a trip to the United States, she fell in love with the bustle of New York. “These idiots don’t sleep,” she said. ” They are crazy. I like this. I’m crazy too.
She and her husband, Xavier Delcourt, tried to open a restaurant in Harlem in 2016, but the deal fell through. Brooklyn beckoned, and late last December – “a bad time; where were all the people? Ms. Delcourt said with regret, not having anticipated a holiday exodus – they unveiled Le Succulent.
The kitchen here is cosy, but there is a thoroughness to the cooking, an elegance to its contours, all the better for not being noticed.
For cod accras, salted cod fritters, Mrs. Delcourt soaks and rinses the cod until half the salt is leached out, then grinds it with parsley, garlic, shallots (“lots”) ), ginger (“sometimes”) and spices imported from Cameroon. She stores the mixture in the refrigerator overnight, to mix and bind it, and fry it to order.
It’s not exactly like she did in Paris: she had to adjust the recipe because the American flour turned out to be so different in texture. After several tests, she found the right calibrations, resulting in steep puffs of dark bronze that break up and disappear, the richness giving way to the lightness, leaving no trace of oil on the fingers.
What she cooks is not fusion, but rather an exchange, two culinary traditions that come together. Often, West Africa and France simply share the table: here a delicate salad of grated fennel, there a heap of pan-fried ripe plantains, which are given a kiss of salt to soften the sweetness.
But sometimes flavors and techniques come together in the same dish. Rather than braising chicken for Senegalese yassa, Madame Delcourt makes a classic roast chicken, the chicken roasted and basted in its own juices, and presents it with yassa onions – more onions than you could ever imagine, cooked in one on its own, bright and strong with lemon, white wine vinegar and enough Dijon mustard and habanero to clear your head and make you sit up straight.
Ms. Delcourt could rub the chicken with ginger or throw a fresh apple in the roasting pan, depending on her mood. “I always think, what can I do to make my clients fall” — to make them swoon, she says.
For thiebou djeun, another Senegalese specialty, she boils cassava, cabbage, eggplant and sweet potato with guedj, yete and a whole fish, bones included, then reserves the broth to cook the rice. A separate fillet of fish is served on top, seared – French style, except for a brush of rof, parsley and garlic pounded in a batter enriched with habaneros.
(Chillies are used judiciously, more for flavor than heat. The only exception is the hot sauce that accompanies cod accras, which I secretly kept coming back to long after everyone had moved on to main courses.)
The dining room is cramped but feels more spacious than it is, with a handful of bentwood chairs and tables alongside a pale banquette. Low candles and dim lights reflect off mirrors in gold frames, bearing looping lettered phrases: “Thank you very much” and “See you soon!”
Only a small number of desserts are prepared each day, and if you dine too late, you might be out of luck. I still mourn my missed chance to try Madame Delcourt’s snow egg, a drift-poached meringue in custard.