Arriving in BAMAKO in the morning, we immediately set off for the most recommended restaurant from Chowhound, Restaurant San Toro. The restaurant is a way back from the main street and looked closed, but we tried the door, entered and saw one other occupied table off to the side. Eventually a server appeared. We tried several juices (the restaurant isnt licensed), including Oseilles Blanches (presumably a white berry of some sort) with fresh mint, Pain des Singe (the fruit of the Baobab tree tastes sort of like a red/black berry milk shake) and the renowned Cocktail San Toro (mixed fruit juice with ginger). All were excellent, and we repeated the dose throughout the meal. The appetizer was smoked capitaine (of which more later) rolled with plantain. The smokiness was very slight, but married well with the slight sweetness of the plantain.
A fairly extensive menu from which we chose Tagine de Mouton with dates and couscous, and Fricassee de Boeuf with Oignons Vertes & Plantain (served with excellent warm bread). The mouton contained some small bones that reminded me of goat (rather than lamb), although most of the meat was boneless. As we travelled throughout Mali, it became apparent that the local sheep were a different breed than the ones we usually find in the West they closely resemble goats. Also, most meat comes from free-range animals so has less fat than our usual meat diet. I generally have not critiqued any moderate toughness but occasionally this was a problem see later. The dates, which were fresh, had been added at the end of cooking to give a crunch to the dish. Very tasty indeed. The Boeuf was fine, without being outstanding, but the onions were superb; sweet and crunchy.
An excellent first meal that set a high standard which unfortunately wasnt matched that often during the rest of the trip! Total cost about 17,000CFA (about 25). At the end of the trip I wondered why this restaurant wasnt as popular with visitors/ex-pats and was told that service was a real problem very slow; and of course, the lack of alcohol eliminated a certain clientele. But easily the best for my money in Bamako.
ASIDE: The CFA (Central African Franc) is the common currency in Mali and most former French colonies in West Africa. Very few restaurants accept either credit cards or other currencies. The only other currency that might be accepted is the Euro (). Even at banks/moneychangers, $ and £ can only be changed with difficulty and/or significant charges (the spread between buy and sell for $ and £ is about 10%, but it is nominal for ).
That evening a recommendation for the hot new restaurant, Le Loft. Most dishes seemed of Belgian origin. Relatively luxurious surroundings and a passable wine list. Appetizers were serviceable: Potato with lemon & parsley, and carrot tempura. Mains were mixed. A rabbit with spaghetti vegetables (the veggies had been cut into very thin strips) was incorrectly seasoned. Too much salt in the rabbit, but no salt in the vegetables. Lamb with caramelized spices and plantain was a little tough but quite tasty. With a bottle of wine (Cahors) the total bill was 35,000CFA VERY expensive for Mali.
Although we set out the next day, we returned to Bamako at the end of the trip, so Ill include those later reviews now.
Dinner at Le Relax (highly recommended in most guide books) and almost next door to San Toro. This is Lebanese owned and operated (as are many hotels and restaurants in Mali), and is fairly casual. A pizza and pork cutlet were ordered (this was after 2 weeks up country so more western oriented food seemed more attractive). The pizza was OK. The pork was tough but not having seen pork since arriving in Mali, this was a craving that needed satisfying. Cost 11,000CFA with beer; cheap but unexceptional.
Lunch the next day was at the Phoenician a well-known pastry shop. The croissants were properly buttery (in most of Mali they were dry) and with soft drinks it was 3,000 CFA for two. And for the final evening a trip to the best restaurant in Bamako (according to most guide books) Les Campagnards. A French restaurant that purportedly carried on the French cooking traditions of Colonial days. This caused a minor reviewing crisis. Should one review a restaurant like this by French standards or local standards? No problem! The meal was so bad that it was disastrous by any standard. The daily special was a duck breast (magret) salad. Although a bit chewy, the flavour was fine, except neither nuts nor avocado appeared on the plate, despite appearing on the blackboard. So 2 of the 5 ingredients were missing on a daily special!
On to the main courses. Pork with mushrooms and port served with roasted potatoes. The potatoes were good. The pork was so chewy as to be almost inedible. We disagreed on whether the sauce contained port. The other main was lamb with orange and star anise and French fries. The lamb was extraordinarily bad. AmuseGirl chewed on one piece interminably, and made the final decision to swallow rather than eject. Bad decision! This is the only time Ive had to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre in a restaurant. I also tried this course and was unsuccessful in chewing through a piece of lamb. We passed on dessert! And the bill exceeded our anticipated cost it turned out that the menu I received had different prices from AmuseGirls. Of course the higher prices were charged. Avoid this place completely.
Now off on the real trip. First stop was in SÉGOU. Here (as in many places) the Hotel lAuberge was Lebanese owned with the fanciest menu in town. In Ségou we first hit a problem that occurred consistently throughout Mali. Although menus exist, it is rare for the food to be available. Travel books suggested that Le Soleil de Minuit was one of the best restaurants in town, so we headed there. Only one dish was available (a stew) despite an extensive menu EVERY dish had to be ordered 24 hours in advance (except for the menu du jour). Several other places (variously labelled Café, Cafeteria, Restaurant, Patisserie, Bar and other related terms are used very loosely throughout Mali) also only had a dish of the day. The Hotel Djoliba had a choice of 3 different pizzas, but other than that, the Hotel lAuberge is really the only place in town. And you can do worse. I had the Steak au Poivre Verts and AmuseGirl had the Capitaine au Buerre. Capitaine is the ubiquitous white fish from the River Niger. An article in our local paper back home mentioned this was a particularly invasive species that is destroying rivers and seas around Africa by eliminating competing species. It is commonly known as the Nile Perch and has hardly any real taste (OK lets call it a very subtle flavour). So choose a good sauce to go with it! Both dishes were respectable and were followed by Crepes au Miel the local honey is quite strong but has good flavour. Total bill 14,000CFA.
Then on to DJENNÉ with a picnic lunch en route bought at the Ségou market. The recommended restaurant, Kita Koorou was closed and again we hit the menu du jour issue so ate at the Campement de Djenné. The fixed meal was vegetable soup, chicken stew with couscous, and fresh papaya. Cost 4,500CFA per person. Filling.
Another picnic lunch before arriving at SANGHA. Evening meal du jour at Sangha Encampement. Ratatouille to start; beef with rice and unripe mangos for dessert. Again 4,500CFA per person. But the highlight was the onion sauce that came separately to add to the rice. Again, onions ruled Mali has great onions as was shown consistently throughout the trip.
For the next 5 days we hiked the Dogon escarpment with a guide and chef, so all meals were cooked al fresco, eventually returning to Sangha and on to MOPTI.
By this time wed learned how to order food. As soon as you arrive in a town, head straight to the restaurant and order your meal to be eaten later. It transpires that restaurants do not typically hold stock of any food and buy it after you order (even an omelette waits until they go out and buy eggs). This is a poor country and no food should be wasted. So lunch was at the Hotel Kanaga (as we arrived). Onion soup, beef sandwich (on French bread) with potato chips and salad. 14,000CFA for two (very expensive). As it turns out, Mopti is one of the few places with a thriving market, so there are several food stands around the fishing harbour and it looked fairly good (millet cakes, fried plantain, fish (both fresh and dried) and deep fried donuts). We pre-ordered our meal at Restaurant Sigui, which is noted for its various preparations of Capitaine. I started with Neep (a variation on a Lebanese dish) sort of a spring roll in flaky pastry stuffed with minced meat and served with a spicy chutney. I had the Capitaine Saigonese, that liberally featured green chilli peppers, and AmuseGirl had the Capitaine au Curry. Probably the best Capitaine on the trip. 15,000CFA for two with drinks.
Then slowly downriver for 2½ days (camping with guide and cook) before reaching TIMBUKTOO.
Stayed at Hotel Hendrina Khan so had the menu du jour there the first night (one travel book claims this is the best restaurant in Timbuktoo). Pea soup, Chicken with BBQ sauce and ice cream. Pretty bad all round. Not a good omen for other places in Timbuktoo. (Again, the hotel only had the one set meal, despite possessing a piece of fiction labelled Menu). 6,500 CFA per person without drinks.
Early start the next morning mainly to pre-order food in Restaurants! Our guide book recommended Poulet dOr which seems to have disappeared, although we passed Poulet dOr Annex just at the edge of the market. This became the lunch destination. Onion omelette with frites was the highlight. Not licensed, but if you want a drink theyll send a moto-cycle to the closest hotel to pick up a cold beer for you. 7000CFA for two including drinks.
The evening meal was pre-ordered at Patisserie Asco which is on the west side of the paved road leading from Timbuktoo to the airport (the last part not necessary as its the only paved road in Timbuktoo), about a 10 minute walk from the roundabout (traffic circle). The term patisserie is a complete misnomer its the best restaurant in town (by far). I had wanted to try Tuareg dishes (who are a significant minority in this area) and the most typical is Toukasso, which is a large dumpling (baseball sized), served with either a meat or vegetarian sauce. Most of the grain we had seen, tried, and subsequently avoided, had been millet. But this dumpling was unbelievably light almost soufflé like totally different texture from the other grain items wed had. The meat sauce was tender and flavourful (and brimming with onions, of course). It turns out that wheat is grown not far from Timbuktoo, and this was made from wheat flour. The other dish was a simple Lemon Chicken with Chips and salad. They say that one of the hardest things to cook well is chicken but here it was perfect (and as always free-range), rubbed with lime and the skin crisped. Other than the first meal at San Toro, the food on the trip had been pretty ordinary, and we almost criticized ourselves for judging the meals by western standards. But here was a simple meal, superbly cooked and worthy by any standards (and not mentioned in any guidebooks it was recommended by the guide). Total cost for 2 with drinks 8000CFA.
Then back to MOPTI by road. Restaurants advertised Pintelle (which we had seen frequently running free-range) but we didnt have 2 hours to wait until it was cooked, so again sandwiches/snacks. The Bar le Bozo was the intended destination that evening, but on the ordering visit it transpired that they were out of beer and didnt expect more that day, so it was back to Restaurant Sigui (see above). An afternoon snack at the renowned Patisserie de Mopti was disappointing. The Pain au Chocolat was very dry and the front-and-centre Espresso machine no longer appeared to be working as we received Nescafé. At Sigui, AmuseGirl tried the Capitaine Bamako (served with plantain) and I tried Zoum Zoum Viande a beef stew served over rice (a vegetarian version was also available). Fairly tender, but bland. The piri-piri sauce served with the neem (see earlier visit) really spiced this dish up. Cost 16,000CFA for two with drinks.
Then back to Bamako and home (Bamako reviews included above).
All-in-all not a culinary destination but if you do go, the San Toro is excellent, and the Patisserie Asco in Timbuktoo is a must if you happen to find yourself there!