The first thing that catches your eye at Mawa's is a panoramic mural of an African plain at sunset, its broad sweep silhouetted with elephants and baobab trees.
While the scene sets a suitably exotic mood for the meal to come, it is the choice of seating that is most telling.
Depending on how adventurous (and flexible) you are, you can pick among two seating options. You can opt for:
one of the low tables in the thatch-roofed "hut" at the front of the room, where you dine in traditional African style, seated cross-legged on mats.
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typical Western style seating, on chairs upholstered in wild animal skin patterns.
Either way, native Senegalese owner/chef Mame Hughes will lead you on a culinary safari that can be as safe or boldly adventurous as you like.
You might choose to stay on the well-traveled roads of, say, sweet Moroccan mint tea and Kenyan carri (which, as the menu explains, is simply a variant of the familiar Indian curry). Or you could venture far afield, where you might find the elusive yeele, which the menu informs you is a West African dish of "beef chunks, tripe, cow feet and vegetables."
I would take a detour around moules casamancaises, a specialty from the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Senegal that the menu describes as "mussels marinated in a spicy tamarind sauce." The sauce is indeed vibrant with flavor, but the mussels tend to be withered and stringy.
Otherwise, pretty much any path you take is relatively risk-free. And by no means should you let the exotic names of dishes intimidate you. The menu serves as a helpful travel guide for your adventure, not only listing the key ingredients in each dish, but also telling you its country of origin. The overwhelming majority of those ingredients are harmless and familiar.
Neemes, for instance, turn out to be Senegalese spring rolls filled with shrimp, wild mushrooms and rice noodles. Fatayas, flaky pastry turnovers with a filling of ground beef and onions, are reminiscent of Jamaican patties. Senegalese pastelles, savory pastries filled with minced tuna, are only slightly more daring.
If your French isn't too rusty, you might be able to guess that beignets crevettes are shrimp (and plump ones at that) encased in a golden brown, herb-flecked batter.
Accaras, black-eyed pea fritters served with a spicy onion relish, would be at home on the menu of an upscale contemporary Southern restaurant -- except you can bet they would cost a good deal more than $2.95 at the contemporary Southern restaurant.
The adventure continues in entree territory, where trails marked Vegan, Meat, Chicken and Seafood lead to destinations all over the African continent.
In Mozambique and South Africa you'll find piri piri, which serves up marinated and grilled shellfish over a delightfully crusty-edged mat of rice cooked in tomatoes, garlic and onion.
At the other end of the continent is North African tagine, a sweet-and-savory paradise of figs, dates, raisins, prunes, grapes and chicken served over couscous.
In between are Senegalese daheen, an earthy melange of lamb, black-eyed peas and rice in a peanut sauce; and saffron-scented riz Goreen, which the menu accurately describes as "the African version of paella."
As helpful as the menu is, the two dishes I enjoyed most were ordered on the recommendation of Mame Hughes herself, who frequently pops out of the kitchen to see to her guests. One was a Tanzanian soup called mtori, which was far more memorable than its menu description of "green bananas, igname (a root vegetable similar to potato), cream and seasonings" suggested. Nor does "crispy croissant pudding served with ice cream, banana and caramel sauce" do justice to the dessert called mbourou fass.
Service is welcoming, though the wait staff are still obviously learning the ropes. One of the waiters is Hughes' American-born husband, Kevin, whose pride in his wife's cooking is evident every time he says "I don't know how she makes it, I just eat it." That's good enough for me, too.