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Au Maquis -- food from Cote d'Ivoire

Au Maquis -- food from Cote d'Ivoire
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  • Au Maquis -- food from Cote d'Ivoire

    Post #1 - December 5th, 2005, 10:25 am
    Post #1 - December 5th, 2005, 10:25 am Post #1 - December 5th, 2005, 10:25 am
    I was anxious to try the restaurant as soon as I first drove by and saw a sign: Au Maquis, African Restaurant. "Maquis" is a term for an African restaurant that is typical of Cote d'Ivoire, and I suspected this might be the only such restaurant in the Chicago area. One of my students had already been there, and I decided to order a big lunch (in advance) mostly for students who had previously lived in Africa.
    This is really the equivalent of being invited into someone's home in sourthern Cote d'Ivoire, with all the benefits ... and drawbacks. Catherine, the owner/chef/waitress (and probably dishwasher) is incredibly friendly and welcoming, but she speaks limited English. Some knowledge of French is definitely useful. She used to have fliers with a printed menu, but she ran out of them, and in any case they are more useful for an indication of what she can cook than what she can offer at any given moment.
    Items which are generally available include:
    alloko -- fried plantain which comes with a rich, thick ground pepper sauce with boiled eggs (the first time I had it, the eggs were not yet entirely hard; the second time, they were.) In Cote d"ivoire, the alloko I had were usually served with a kind of hot sauce more like tabasco or Mexican pepper sauces.
    poisson braise with attieke -- [pronounced roughly "pwassone brayzay" and "acheckay"]; broiled fish (I don't know exactly what kind) with a manioc preparation unique to Cote d'Ivoire; the manioc is crumbled into little grains and left to ferment a while. This is like couscous with a kick -- great stuff if properly made. Catherine makes her own, by the way, and claims that only six out of the approximately eighty ethnic groups in Cote d'Ivoire know how to make it well; these all come from the lagoon area around Abidjan, the former capital and largest city in the country. The fish, by the way, was beatifully done, not too dry but with a crisp skin, on a bed of raw onions and green peppers, and with some of the same sauce that accompained the alloko.
    Catherine had had to take her child to the hospital the night before, and was clearly still recovering herself. While we had ordered the lunch for noon, it started coming about forty minutes later. I had the impression that she was making each dish to order once we had finished the last one, so that the lunch progressed at a pace well beyond slow. We left at 4:15, after we had had, besides the alloko and the fish,
    foufou with sauce claire ("clear sauce") with smoked goat; foufou is pronounced like Nigerian/Ghanaian foofoo, but is actually rather different; it is mashed very ripe plantain mixed with palm oil, more crumbly and chunky than foofoo; the sauce was a read sauce of palm oil, peppers and (I would guess) tomato. The authentic way to eat this is with your hands, grabbing a chunk of the foufou and dipping it in the sauce, but spoons are provided for the light-hearted (or heavy-handed!). The combination was very nice, but this is indeed spicy food.
    We also had foutou (NOT to be confused with foufou); this is the same as Nigerian foofoo, except that you can order it made from plantains and manioc flour as well as with yam. This, I suspect, was not home made -- the only item on the menu that wasn't. We had originally ordered chicken with "sauce pistache", "pistachio sauce", as we were very curious to learn what this was. I am sure it is not made with pistachios -- these are hardly a common item in Cote d'Ivoire -- but with something else which is locally and incorrectly called pistachio. Unfortunately, Catherine couldn't find any, and served us chicken in peanut sauce. The chicken was from Devon Street, and clearly not an industrial chicken. Ivorians like their chickens on the tough and tasty side, as if they actually used their legs! Not Purdue chicken! This was nice, but I would have preferred something else, as I make my own peanut sauce if I develop a craving for it ....
    All of this was ordered two days in advance; don't expect it if you show up unannounced.
    We had also ordered (but ultimately had to forego) two other items:
    kedjenou -- another dish found only in Cote d'Ivoire. This is made in an earthenware jar with a short cylindrical neck (or in aluminum imitations); You alternate layers of chicken and vegetables -- onions, tomatoes, peppers, garlic -- and cover the lid with a banana leaf (a wet one I suppose). The ingredients simmer in their own juice, and steam builds up in the recipient. When the dish is ready, the water vapor rises to enough pressure to gently lift up the leaf lid. Fantastic stuff -- I want to go back and try her version.
    I also wanted to try her sauce graine -- palm nut cream -- also served with foufou, which she serves with smoked fish (an acquired taste!), fresh or smoked meat, crab and, if she can find them, large snails (not your father's escargots!). These snails are a specialty of sourthn Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire. My friends from the north of the country find this particularly repulsive, but well done, they are delicious. (Overcooked, of course, they are rubbery, as one might expect.) The snails, though, are expensive, she added.
    Other sauces mentioned on the flier include both fresh and dried versions of okra (gombo in french; specify if you want it fresh or "sechee" (saychay) -- dried.
    Aside from the broiled fish, she can do chicken, and also lists cow foot and lamb tripe soups for the adventurous.
    Saving this restaurant may be a major project! But it is both unique and delicious -- well worth the drawbacks in my opinion. However, the restaurant is chronically empty (though given the total absence of decor, I know people who will go for takeout rather than stay to eat there.) I suspect it caters mostly to African cabbies.
    Again, if you go:
    either order in advance over the phone or, better, in person; or be prepared to go with the flow and settle for what she has available. There is no printed menu anymore anyway. She serves bissap (African agua de jamaica) and you can bring your own wine or beer by all means.
    Don't go there if you are in a hurry, though ....
  • Post #2 - December 5th, 2005, 11:07 am
    Post #2 - December 5th, 2005, 11:07 am Post #2 - December 5th, 2005, 11:07 am
    I'm there, but where is it?
  • Post #3 - December 5th, 2005, 11:24 am
    Post #3 - December 5th, 2005, 11:24 am Post #3 - December 5th, 2005, 11:24 am
    Au Maquis
    1632 W. Howard
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  • Post #4 - December 5th, 2005, 11:35 am
    Post #4 - December 5th, 2005, 11:35 am Post #4 - December 5th, 2005, 11:35 am
    I went there Friday night ... I was both impressed (with the food) and unimpressed (lack of decor and, unfortunately, a lack of business acumen on Catherine's part).

    I fear for the restaurant's future ... Catherine's English, is, as noted, very limited, and Susan's and my French is virtually nonexistent. So, with no printed menu and virtually no ability to speak to each other, ordering was a challenge. (Although if I were in a restaurant in the Ivory Coast, I would probably have the same problems, so on that basis it's probably very authentic.) Fortunately, I had printed out a note from Robert, and was able to point to the poisson braise with attieke, as described above. And we were able to discern the word “plantain,” so we also ordered that. The whole fish, with crispy skin, served with onion, peppers (both sweet and hot, it seemed), and the attieke (which appeared like a couscous, but with a different, slightly pleasantly sour flavor) was deliciously unlike anything I've ever had before.

    And it was deserted at 8 p.m. on a Friday - which I assume should be a reasonably good time for most restaurants. In fact, the chairs were turned over on the tables in the room to the west, further making it look as if it wasn't open. I’m not a stickler for decor, especially in a small, family-owned restaurant like this, but it’s pretty clear it was some sort of fast food place before opening in this incarnation.

    We also experienced a long wait to receive our food.

    This is a place I would love to see succeed, but I think she needs a lot of help for that to happen. Even just a blackboard telling what’s available that day, or separate cards for/describing each dish that could be handed or not depending on what’s available that day, would be a big help, with little expense.

    But if you’re adventurous, try it. In many ways it is like going to someone's house for dinner.

    Au Maquis
    1632 West Howard
    (773) 508-5408
  • Post #5 - December 6th, 2005, 4:23 pm
    Post #5 - December 6th, 2005, 4:23 pm Post #5 - December 6th, 2005, 4:23 pm
    I happily joined Robert's group for the Sunday excursion to Au Maquis on Howard. Had I been a solo diner that day, as I generally am, I would have found the wait a problem, but as it was, there was lots of fascinating conversation among the group of anthropologists who had spent time in West Africa. I also enjoyed the food, especially the grilled and marinated fish -- sort of like an escabeche-- and the fried plantains with egg and spicy sauce. Catherine was also very warm and apologetic about the wait-- but she managed to serve a large group a multi-course dinner with a sick child underfoot. Quite a feat in my book! Also, this place is certainly the anti-Taste of Heaven in that respect. Kids running around? Bring 'em on! (Only no kids menu of hot dog, mac 'n cheese, etc.) Still, the two-year-old in the group seemed happy with the fried plantains and foufou. By the way, for the curious, I understand that the place was once a Dunkin Doughnuts franchise.
    Man : I can't understand how a poet like you can eat that stuff.
    T. S. Eliot: Ah, but you're not a poet.
  • Post #6 - December 7th, 2005, 4:56 pm
    Post #6 - December 7th, 2005, 4:56 pm Post #6 - December 7th, 2005, 4:56 pm
    Well, this is a coincidence! I just happened to be in Chicago yesterday (dropping my brother-in-law off at O'Hare) and decided to take a little culinary journey. First a satisfying lunch at Spoon Thai (which I tried based on reading a rec in this Forum, thanks!), then carryout at Nigerian Kitchen (1363 W. Wilson Ave., 773-271-4010) , then I thought I'd drop by Au Maquis to see if they had a carryout menu. The owner had ONE to show me, which included the above-described dishes and an intriguing item called PISTASCHIO SOUP! I would guess this is something like the Nigerian Egusi Soup, which of course is not a soup but a stew. I suppose the Ivorian version includes ground Pistaschio nuts instead of melon seeds. The owner indicated as best he could (that language barrier) that some new menus would be printed up soon. I'm certainly looking foreward to coming back and trying the Pistaschio Soup!

    I have to concur with the description of the owners' lack of business acumen, which I would extend to almost all of the (non-Ethiopian) restaurants in Chicago. Take my visit to Nigerian Kitchen (which happened to be my first). The place is certainly spacious and reasonably well-decorated compared to other Chicago African places. The lady behind the counter was pleasant and friendly (also a plus compared to other Chicago African). When I made my order she indicated there might be a wait of about 20 minutes. That was fine with me as I had couple of other things to do. I came back at the appointed time and waited another 30 MINUTES for my order to be ready, and even then they gave me pounded yam instead of the Gari I'd requested ( which I didn't find out until I'd gotten back to Milwaukee). I don't understand; JUST WHAT IS THE GODDAM PROBLEM!? I mean, most African dishes are STEWS or RICE, which don't require a lot of complicated preparation; just ladle it out of the pot and put it in my bowl, please. Still this happens again and again at just about every Nigerian place I've been to.

    The food at Nigerian Kitchen is about at a par with other Chicago Nigerian places; it's not the best and not the worst. For those who are interested, here's my latest ranking of Chicago Nigerians:

    QAATO (formerly Caato): 7118 N. Clark St. 773-465-6255. A cut above the others in terms of food quality. The Pepper Soup is fiery and full of meat, the soups (stews) are tasty, Asaro (yam porridge) has shrimp, which is not so common. Service spotty yet friendly. Ambiance almost non-existent.

    BQ AFRO ROOT CUISINE: 4802 N. Clark St. 773-878-7489. Before I discovered Qaato this was my favorite. The food is decent, the place is clean, and best of all the service is friendly and FAST. If they can do it why can't the other places?

    BOLAT: 3346 N. Clark St. 773-665-1100. Pluses: a more extensive menu than the other places, and the food is good. Minuses: Cramped, drafty and wildly inconsistent and incompetent service. After our last visit/ordeal, we swore we'd never go back.

    John Beadle
  • Post #7 - December 7th, 2005, 5:06 pm
    Post #7 - December 7th, 2005, 5:06 pm Post #7 - December 7th, 2005, 5:06 pm

    Thanks for the reviews and the rankings.

    For new to the cuisine, what are the must-have dishes?

    Thanks in advance.


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