Lindsey McClave Special to Courier Journal
My favorite part about my job as restaurant critic for the Courier Journal is the ability it affords me to try foods from across the globe, all found right here in Louisville.
Thanks to this role I found myself taking in the flavors of West Africa at Funmi’s Café on Bardstown Road, where the owners draw inspiration from their home country of Nigeria. Located at the edge of the Highlands in a corner of the Gardiner Lane Shopping Center, Funmi’s Café is small and somewhat unassuming.
I sensed that it is special to many, however, as large parties were gathered in celebration during both of my review visits. While not all dishes sampled were ones that would draw me back but the goat soup, moin-moin and chicken suya boast flavors worthy of many a return visit and should not be missed.
The dining space of Funmi’s is modest and simple. A square room is set with several tables and chairs with a handful of paintings depicting individuals adorned in brightly hued dresses providing the sole decoration. Two mounted television screens denote the afrobeat station providing music befitting of the food coming from the kitchen, which is set just behind a tall, partial wall — the sizzle from the fryer and the clinking of dishes escaping into the dining room.
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Service is tableside and both a complete menu and a dedicated vegan menu are available. Indeed, Funmi’s is an excellent place for vegetarians and I began a lunch visit with a bowl of the lablabi soup ($5.99). Most popular in the country of Tunisia, this chickpea soup is rich in both texture and spice. The chickpeas were left whole and also mashed into the broth, adding delicious depth. I was asked my preferred spice level for the soup, given the options of mild, medium or hot. My selection of medium proved to bring more than enough heat and I might recommend mild when it comes to this soup as the fiery kick threatened to overpower the more delicate chickpeas.
The appetizer combo ($9.99) is another pleasing, meat-free way to begin your meal. A sampling of four of Funmi’s traditional starters, the star of the show is the moin-moin, a bean cake served with a tomato based ‘fry sauce.’ The bean cake’s texture is spongy but not at all gummy and it is beautifully seasoned. Beans are also presented stewed and are known as ewa ati dodo, fresh fried plantains paired alongside. The lentil sambusa was passable, not the best I’ve had but certainly not the worst.
On the meat side of the appetizer offerings, the chicken suya ($7.99) was a worthwhile order. These kebabs are coated in a spicy peanut based rub and charred on the grill until juicy.
The entree side of Funmi’s menu is divided into four categories, designated by the base upon which each dish is built. The first section begins with your choice of stewed or mashed African brown beans, similar to those sampled in the appetizer combo.
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Asaro based entrees are next. This traditional dish features a mash of slow cooked potatoes, plantains and kale. We added chicken to ours ($14.99), which arrived draped in tomato sauce. A serving of kachumbari salad accompanied — a coleslaw of sorts originating in East Africa. The finely shredded mix of red cabbage, onion, tomato and cucumber was tossed in a lemon dressing adding an acidic note and making for a particularly nice counterpoint to the somewhat sweet asaro mash.
Rice entrees are offered with plantains and your choice of steamed rice or jollof rice, which I recommend as it is cooked in a rich tomato sauce. However, the fried beef we selected to accompany the rice ($14.99) proved to be a mix of tender and dry cubes. The same was true of the beef that came with our order of efo riro stew ($15.99). Part of the Fufu menu category, this starchy ball of various flours (diners may choose from yam, cassava, corn or oat) is a traditional side dish in Nigeria and many countries throughout Africa.
Alone it can be harsh but it hits the spot when used as a vehicle to sop up sauces or stews like the kale and tomato one that came with our dish.
Not at all dry was the goat soup ($9.99). Funmi’s unquestionably knows how to work with this particular protein which was fantastically tender after a long simmer in a broth of tomato and warm spices.
As someone who actively seeks out authentic dining experiences inspired by cultures both near and far, Funmi’s Café presented a treasure trove of dishes that engaged my palate and opened my eyes to yet another one of the world’s great cuisines.
Reach freelance restaurant critic Lindsey McClave at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
Address: 3028 Bardstown Road
Cuisine: Specializing in the food of Nigeria and West Africa
Children’s Menu: Yes
Alcohol: Limited selection of beer is available.
Vegetarian: Dedicated vegan menu, excellent option for vegetarians
Price Range: Moderate
Reservations: Available for groups of five or more
Credit Cards: Yes
Access: Restaurant is handicap accessible
Parking: Available in Gardiner Lane Shopping Center
Hours: noon to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday