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October 17, 2012

Funmi’s showcases the bright, bold flavors of Africa

“Good Day! I am the nephew of Dr. Gen. Col. Robin Mkborumi Bmaka Grrrr, the infamous Bean Factotum and former Royal Food Evaluator of Krakatoa. I am contacting you for your consideration in liberating a Treasure of Delicious, Memorable Good Things To Eat. Have you ever eaten the rare and delicious food of Nigeria? It is very rare and difficult to find, but I am prepared to part with 20 percent of the proceeds to be gained from your help and assistance in liberating this great African cuisine for the people of Louisville.”

Wait! Don’t touch that DELETE key! This is no scam.

Sadly, if you say “Nigeria,” many people will think first of ubiquitous email scam letters like this, so many of which emanate from West Africa that Internet geeks call the genre “419 scam” because that’s the Nigerian police category for the offense reports.

But that’s sort of like judging the entire United States by the crowd at a Nickelback concert, or maybe the early pack of candidates in the Republican presidential primaries: Most of us aren’t like that. And Nigeria is a proud African nation with its roots in the Yoruba, a people who boasted substantial arts and culture while most of our European ancestors were living in thatched huts and gumming gruel through the long cold winters of the Dark Ages.

We don’t get much opportunity to meet African culture or cuisine in Louisville, although a few outposts like Queen of Sheba (Ethiopian/East African) and Chez Seneba (Senegalese/West African) give it a worthy effort. And now Nigerian-born chef Funmi Aderinokun and her family have brought the bold, bright flavors of Africa in general, and Nigeria in particular, back to Bardstown Road for another try.

Funmi’s Café, you may recall, popped up in the midst of the Bardstown-Baxter nightlife zone a couple of years ago, where it gained a lot of fans for its Nigerian flavors, friendly service and amiable mix of carnivorous and vegan dishes.

Unfortunately, the hard realities of the restaurant business soon intervened, and Funmi’s had to close when the monthly lease payment for the tiny but well situated storefront (on the same block as Jack Fry’s) jumped from $2,500 to $3,000 a month. Even with a loyal following, it’s hard to make the numbers work with a small eatery when you’re paying that much for rent. Now she’s trying it again in more spacious, lower-budget quarters in the Gardiner Lane shopping center, tucked into a strip-mall box canyon behind Rocky’s and Buckhead Mountain Grill.

It’s a pretty, shiny venue, with about 45 seats (just shy of the number needed for a wine license, alas), bright walls, attractive seating and eye-catching African art. With a larger kitchen permitting a more expansive menu, Funmi’s bill of fare now extends beyond Nigeria to offer tastes of a variety of West African cultures from Tunisia to Tanzania, Senegal, Mozambique and more.

The menu, in other words, offers a virtual education in African fare, with a short list of appetizers, soups and salads from $3.99 (for kachumbari, East African cole slaw) to $7.99 (for West African-style goat soup). Speaking of goat, all the meats at Funmi’s are halal; about half of the dishes are vegan; and all dishes feature fresh, local produce with no fatty palm oil or MSG. Some Nigerian dishes are traditionally fiery with cayenne and chile peppers, but they’ll take care to ask, and respect, your preference from mild to “OMG!”

About a dozen dinner entrees range in price from $10.99 (for most items) to $15.99 (for asun, grilled goat or lamb). A shorter lunch menu, available at midday, is $5.99 (for adalu brown-bean and sweet-corn stew) to $7.99 (for Tanzanian beef curry stew with white rice or Indian chapati bread). Non-alcoholic drinks include fountain soft drinks and Nigerian beverages. I recommend West African Zobo ($2), a tart, mouth-watering, unsweet herbal tea served over ice.

We dropped in on a chilly evening and warmed right up with one delicious taste after another. An appetizer portion of Ewa ati Dodo ($5.99) looked simple but blew us away with its flavors: Tender African-style red beans, spicy, not fiery, pooled around a cluster of plantain rounds that had been lightly fried to a creamy texture within a light, crisp crust.

We took the lamb option for the asun ($15.99) and got a generous mound of tender, flavorful bite-size chunks stewed in a gently spicy sauce, a side of aloco, an Ivory Coast mix of tomatoes, onions, fried plantains and hot peppers, and a side of tomato-tinged, spicy Jollof rice.

The Egusi stew ($11.99) was an intriguing stew of West African-style mushrooms, chopped spinach and ground melon seeds in a fairly fiery sauce with a mound of fufu, a white-cornmeal dish that resembled very firm grits.

You could liken Nigerian Puff-Puffs ($3) to American donut holes or Italian zeppoli; crisply fried and sweet, a bit dense and heavy, four satisfying spheres were served with choice of maple syrup or powered sugar. Or both!

Bring patience and don’t expect fast-food service: This is a one-woman kitchen producing heritage dishes made with love, and your dinner is made to order. A filling dinner for two came to $38.13, plus an $8 tip for prompt and friendly attention from our server, Cameron.

Funmi’s Café
3028 Bardstown Road • 454-5009
funmiscafe.com
Rating: 88 

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