[ review ]
Sink into a creaky red booth, close your eyes and open your ears. Hear it? Over the din of the NCAA tournament on the overhead TV, something effete and lyrical is hanging in the air like a butterfly. French.
At West Philly's homey Le Bercail, the cooking is inspired by the West African countries once controlled by France. The shrimp skewers are brochettes de crevettes, flamboyant crêpes come a la fraise, a la pêche or au chocolat, and the takeout menu coos "Nous sommes ravis de vous accueillir" (We are delighted to welcome you) beneath the slightly less elegant English headline, "Look! Look! Wow! West African and French cuisine at your neighborhood."
The neighborhood is Spruce Hill, the welcomer Haruna Zita. A native of Burkina Faso, or Upper Volta in the colonial days, Zita is Le Bercail's owner (definitely) and chef (possibly). From the info gleaned from our largely lost-in-translation phone conversation, he may also have friends and family, a group of Senegalese matrons or the ghost of Marie Antoinette handling the cooking at his modest but eager Baltimore Avenue BYOB.
The question of who's cooking is much less relevant than what's cooking, a heady melange of boldly spiced recipes from Senegal, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Mali, nations Zita has traveled and cooked through on a roundabout course that eventually landed him in West Philly in 2005. Cryptic, taciturn and loosely organized into sections like "Sauce" and "Grillade," Le Bercail's list of offerings is not so much a menu to peruse as a mystery to solve. Fortunately, the cautiously friendly staff — one woman ran the sparsely populated apricot dining room the night I visited — provide clues when pressed.
For those unfamiliar with West African cuisine, make sure your phone's data plan is up to date. You'll be Googling degue (millet pudding), atieke (fermented cassava root couscous, steamed here to a voluminous fluff) and Tchep (think Senegalese paella) while sipping housemade bissap, an inky-purple hibiscus punch with undertones of mint and wintergreen. Zita also brews a ginger tonic in-house, the rhizome's innate zing cut with pineapple juice and vanilla. Tres refreshing.
I tried a little from each category, which equated to a lot — moist chicken thighs braised in tomato-y gravy enriched with peanut butter; zesty grilled shrimp astride turmeric-tinted onion relish and sweet, starchy alloco, the Ivorian counterpart to Latin American tostones; bony blocks of gamey lamb surrounding a mountain of mahogany fried rice crowned with wedges of hard-boiled egg. Le Bercail's portions are enormous and its prices cut-rate, making it a favorite with the starving-artist and university crowds that mix in with the neighborhood's African emigres. Even the crêpes, rougher around the butter-blackened edges but just as feather-light as the best French café's, come four to an order!
The remains of the whole fried tilapia, my favorite dish, resisted a takeout box, but I eventually won that battle. How could I leave almost half a fish this flavorful? After being fried so crisp the salty skin buckles and splits (you can also get it grilled), the St. Peter's fish gets smothered in yassa, a murky, super-savory sauce of onions, carrots, peppers and garlic punched up with vinegar, chile and mysterious spices Zita couldn't reveal even if he wanted to. "I don't know the words in English," he apologized. It's cool, Z. Even nosy food writers like a little mystery.
While I was paying the check ($50 for enough food for six) at the rear counter, a flier tacked to the wall grabbed me. "Improve your English!" it declared, for $20 per one-hour session. But Le Bercail, exactly the kind of unassuming haunt at which I want regular status, has left me wondering: Think they'll teach me French instead?
Le Bercail | 4519 Baltimore Ave., 267-292-5805. Open daily, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Wraps, $6; entrées, $4.99-$15; dessert, $2-$4. BYOB.