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Altered States

Food Review: Chef MaMusu brings her comforting, hybrid take on West African cuisine to Forest Hill Avenue.



I have a confession. For a couple of years I've tried, and failed, to duplicate chef MaMusu's collard greens recipe at home. Her treatment of the bitter green is different from the usual overcooked, vinegar- and meat-laden version so common in the South. And yet there's a comforting familiarity to the flavors. That familiarity comes from the strange and unique geo-political history that makes up the tortured West African and American relationship.

Chef MaMusu was born and learned to cook in Liberia, a West African country created by Americans in the early 1800s who believed blacks should be returned to Africa. All the while, ingredients and cooking techniques brought from Africa to these shores returned, altered, to the new country of Liberia. There, they were further transformed. It's one reason so much of the food tastes just a step or two away from familiar.

Chef MaMusu has brought her Liberian cooking to most every festival in town and ran a successful downtown lunch buffet for many years. Many Richmonders have enjoyed her fried fish, corn bread and plantains at a Brown's Island concert or the 2nd Street Festival. Fans of her cooking should rejoice, for she's opened a restaurant on Forest Hill Avenue that offers a greatly expanded menu and hours.

Chef MaMusu's African-Caribbean Cuisine is where Forest Hill and Semmes avenues merge next to Crossroads Coffee. The site's been the home of several restaurants in the last few years, most recently the Parkside Cafe. The menu should look familiar to any patron of MaMusu's other ventures: It includes many of her staples as well as the story of the culinary tradition she learned from her grandmother.

Home-brewed ginger beer or ginger tea ($2.50) is an excellent way to start your meal, the sweetness offset by a strong ginger bite. Order some appetizers, as food service is slow even when the dining room is sparsely filled. Good options include Caribbean standards such as jerk chicken wings and plantains, or Liberian soups and hush puppies. I recommend the fried cassava ($3.50), served as small fingers of starchy, breaded goodness, with a warm, mixed-vegetable dipping sauce.

Entrees are pricier than expected, starting around $15, even for the homey hopping John. But portions are generous, and many meals come with a side of spicy collards, plantains and some of the best corn bread in Richmond.

I'm thrilled to see peanut stew on the menu, a West African staple which is a distant cousin to Southern American peanut soup. Don't expect the sweet thickness of that familiar dish. MaMusu's version ($16.95) comes with bone-in chicken and shrimp, while the thin, peanut-based sauce is subtle with a mildly spicy kick. Spicy grilled salmon ($16.95) comes on the verge of overcooked, but the pepper and onion topping save the dish from being too dry. The cook-up ($14.95) is my only true disappointment. A classic red peas and rice dish with a mix of meats including unpeeled shrimp and smoked turkey, it's served too dry, and even the subtlety of MaMusu's spicing doesn't rescue it.

Vegetarians are exceptionally well-served, with a few dedicated pages of the menu. There's no alcohol license, but given Richmond's burgeoning interest in craft beer, cocktails and wine on tap, your liver probably could use a night off.

Chef MaMusu has a vision of bringing her family's culturally rooted food tradition to Richmond, and giving back to the community by teaching about healthy cooking techniques and ingredients. That vision has motivated her for almost two decades, and Richmond is fortunate to have this new opportunity to have good food served by good people. S

Chef MaMusu's African-Caribbean Cuisine
3514 Forest Hill Ave.
Tuesday-Friday, noon-9 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday, 7 a.m.-9 p.m.

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