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Marie-Claude Mendy brings Senegal to Boston

Celina Colby | 12/30/2016, 6 a.m.

When Marie-Claude Mendy emigrated to the U.S. from her home in Dakar, Senegal, she took two things with her: an eye for design and a passion for cooking. Food and family were integrally intertwined in her upbringing, and she came of age preparing traditional Senegalese dishes from scratch with her mother. Mendy brings those unique flavors to Boston’s South End in her delicious restaurant, Teranga.

Comfort food

Mendy says her goal was to bring the simple, but powerful, tastes of Africa to the cold Northeast. “When you are born into something, you tend to take it for granted,” she says. “My motto is simple but tasty, and then flavorful, and that’s what I want to share.”

Though Senegalese sounds exotic in a town famous for clam chowder and baked beans, the cuisine is based on freshness of ingredients and subtleness of pairings rather than harsh spices. Due to a history of colonization, the food pulls from French, Asian, Arabic and African influences. The Thiebou Djeun (National Dish) features herb-stuffed white fish cooked in a tomato-based stew with carrots, cauliflower, eggplant and pumpkin. Served with a flavorful couscous, the result is rich comfort food perfectly suited for the frigid Boston winter.

Cultural mix

Teranga’s location on the border of the South End and Roxbury is a nod to the melding of cultures in the area, as in the food. The décor is that of a moody, trendy nightspot with a subtle nod to Senegal. It was important to Mendy not to go overboard with the African influence.

“I didn’t want clichés like damask,” she says. Handmade paintings adorn the walls, many of which are from Mendy’s personal collection. “Every time I travel I pick up a painting,” says Mendy. “I wanted something chic but meaningful.”

Warm welcome

Teranga’s ten-seat bar serves up delicious cocktails like the sweet and potent Mango Sangria, and the tangy Teranga Calirinha,

made with lime, mint, and caña. The cocktails pair well with the small-bites style appetizers. Mendy recommends the Accara, a seasoned black-eyed pea batter that’s fried and served with mild tomato-onion sauce. For a spicier kick try the Fataya, a savory fried pastry filled with seasoned tuna and served with a zesty sriracha sauce. Mendy hopes to add brunch to the menu in 2017.

The restaurant is very much a welcoming place. When Mendy gets a text that her chefs are running late she jumps into the kitchen herself, handcrafting the meals that she eagerly serves to her customers. She chats casually in French with two guests, pausing only to refill the drinks of a group sitting by the exposed brick wall. It feels less like you’ve walked into a restaurant, and more like you’ve walked into Mendy’s home.

“Come in, eat, enjoy,” she says, smiling. “Our story is still going.”