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Out of Africa, intriguing flavor combinations

Special to The Times

One bite of Le Teranga’s mafe and I feel a gentle throb of chile heat, a back note that kicks in slowly. Fiery habaneros judiciously season this velvety, peanut-sauced stew, slicing through its richness to add the perfect accent.

It takes a practiced hand to bring this West African specialty to life. Mafe can be heavy and monotonous or excessively spicy. But Le Teranga’s precisely balanced version had three of us gathered around a bowl of it, scooping up every drop with spoonfuls of rice, as if this would be our last taste.

Mafe isn’t the only enticement that convinced us this unpretentious place near Baldwin Plaza shopping center is an extraordinary find. The prices are gentle. The flavors pop. And every dish is deftly prepared and stylishly garnished.

When you enter the beveled glass door you immediately feel teranga (welcomed). The dining room’s color scheme -- pale yellow walls, deep green linens and tiny red roses on each table -- reflects the flag of Senegal, the homeland of chef-owner Ibrahima Sarr. The lingering influence of France on this former colony is evident, even here in L.A. As regular customers enter the spotless 10-table dining room, they’re often greeted with “Comment ca va?” or “Bonjour.”

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Sarr, who cooked in restaurants in Europe and West Africa before coming to L.A., has worked in high-end kitchens around the city, most notably that celebrity-packed hot spot of the mid-'90s, Drai’s. Now he’s well regarded as a caterer in West African circles here. And in fact, Le Teranga sells a lot of takeout, although naturally the food is best straight from the kitchen.

First on the menu is Senegal’s national dish, thiebou dienn (pronounced “cheebo dee-en”; sometimes you even see it spelled chaabu jin), fish stewed with root vegetables and greens. In Sarr’s refined and deconstructed version, a whole fish is stuffed with sauteed fresh basil, parsley and garlic, then served in large slices with a carefully formed dome of Senegalese-style red rice. It’s served with vegetables including a whole eggplant the size of an egg.

That’s plenty of food, but go ahead and order a side of the beautifully fried plantains anyway. Their creamy sweetness inside a lightly caramelized exterior hits the spot with this dish.

Debe is wonderful lamb cut into thick slabs, dry marinated and grilled. With it comes a salad of baby greens in balsamic vinaigrette topped with sliced cucumbers and paper-thin carrot ribbons.

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Skinny brochettes of chicken or beef are street food for snacking in Dakar, where they’re sold at booth-like grilleries, but Sarr serves them entree style, with a pile of fried sweet potatoes and a salad.

“Have you had your soup?” is a common West African way of inquiring whether a person has eaten. Le Teranga’s okra soup, crowded with cubed beef and large shrimp and served beside an enormous mound of parsley-splashed rice, is a delicious mix of flavors that will appeal to lovers of New Orleans-style gumbo.

Chicken yassa is marinated in lemon juice and simmered with loads of onions to a mellow sweetness, then splashed with vinegar to create a sauce that’s tart and subtly sweet. It’s garnished with a whole, pickled habanero chile.

Each day there’s a different specialty. Wednesdays it’s thieb yap, a paella-like lamb and rice dish. Thursdays it’s Moroccan couscous, a Dakar favorite adopted from North African traders and immigrants.

To drink, there’s house-made bissop juice (better known around here as jamaica), a sweetened infusion of tart hibiscus flowers.

A touch of vanilla gives this version a distinct personality. Lightly sweetened fresh ginger “juice,” another refreshing infusion, is a great palate cleanser.

Desserts seem to run out early, but there is always thiakry (sometimes spelled chagri). This heavenly pudding of sour cream and yogurt is textured with fine couscous and a few golden raisins.

It makes any introduction to Senegalese cooking deliciously complete.

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Le Teranga

Location: 4279 1/2 Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 293-3112

Price: Entrees, $8.50 to $12.50; side dishes, $2 to $7.50; desserts, $3 to $5

Best dishes: Mafe, thiebou dienn, debe, thieb yap, thiakry

Details: Open for lunch and dinner noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. No alcohol. Street parking. Visa and MasterCard


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