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Valley Life | restaurant review

Deliciously Unfamiliar

Traditional Nigerian foods and mix of Caribbean dishes are worth acquiring taste for.

May 12, 2000|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Coconut Cafe is the Valley's only restaurant serving traditional Nigerian food. Owner Reggie Idehen is from Nigeria. But the chef is Belize-born Brandon Miranda (he speaks Garifano, the indigenous Carib language), and the menu also features Belizean and other Caribbean dishes.

You have to love the Valley for places like this. It's a tiny joint with mustard walls and coral pink tablecloths, with three TV sets hanging from the ceiling. One evening our friendly waiter, who knew the menu quite well, revealed that he was born in Iran.

Loving the food may take a little more work. It's not that the dishes aren't good but that many of them are emphatically unfamiliar. Take fufu, a football-sized ball of pounded yam that looks like Play-Doh. Its taste is mild and pleasant, though the gummy texture takes some getting used to.

But it's not meant to be eaten by itself. You choose one of three sauces. The best is egusi, a puree of pumpkin seeds, spices and the delicious, but notoriously saturated-fat-rich, palm oil. You can get a spicier pumpkin seed paste, ogbono, or, for $1 extra, the piquant edikanikong: spinach stewed with bits of smoked fish and meat.

Then there is jollof rice, a famous West African stew of rice and vegetables with your choice of meat. We had ours with chicken, and it reminded everyone of an Indian biryani. But the scene-stealer was the side dish, moin-moin: a fluffy steamed cake made from several types of mashed beans. It dissolves magically in the mouth, and it's the most unusual dish I've tasted in years.

Miranda also makes good jerk chicken wings, surprisingly moist and fiery; a huge dish of them costs less than $5. Other Jamaican dishes include curried goat--slightly gelatinous in texture, intensely flavorful--and escoveatched fish, here made with bony kingfish. The name comes from the Spanish "escabeche," meaning pickled in vinegar; it's quite good.

There is a delicious fish called shrimp St. James, for which jumbo prawns are cooked in coconut milk and spices and served with steamed rice and a large pile of fried plantains. If you're really adventurous, you can try amala, listed on the menu but not always available. It's sun-dried yam flour cooked to a smooth brown texture. This is a favorite dish in western Nigeria, but it may be awhile before amala gives sun-dried tomatoes a run for the money.

Everything on this fascinating menu is cooked to order, so be prepared for relatively long waits.

DETAILS

Coconut Cafe, 11040 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. Open Sunday, noon-9 p.m.; Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. No alcohol. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, $19-$32. Suggested dishes: jerk chicken wings, $4.95; jollof rice with moin-moin, $7.95; escoveatched fish, $12.95; shrimp St. James, $13.95. Call (818) 985-3608.

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