Citi Grill

My frame of reference for African food is about as wide as a hummingbirds clit. There are only two truths I know:  well-to-do white people love to talk up Ethiopian food like it’s not just a watery version of Indian food served with edible baby wipes, and the entire continent of Africa knows how to cook lamb. North African tagines. South African bobotie. Curried lamb necks. Mechoui. Merguez. Mutton stews. If you are cooking any of this shit I will eat it.

Despite my love for our little woolen friends, I don’t really search out many African restaurants. I try to eat in JC as much as possible, partially because I started a blog in 2018 like a real fuckin visionary, but also becase we are the most diverse city in America (according to sentient advertorial NJ.com) and have some pretty solid hometown options as a result.

Despite our diversity resulting in a comically dense cluster of high-quality Indian and Filipino food, there’s just not a lot of African cuisine inside the city limits. I typically handle this situation by overpaying for highbrow bar food who’s price is justified because they hung up a couple Edison bulbs, play lo-fi hip hop and make cocktails with aquavit

It should come as no surprise that when I learned about Citi Grill, specifically their mechoui and dibi lamb, a little tent of enthusiasm popped up in my dungarees. Thankfully, there was just enough enthusiasm to brave a snowstorm and go have a little taste.  Well, I wouldn’t say it was an actual snow storm, more like an artificial snowstorm caused by the city you live in forfeiting their money on tax abatements for luxury buildings instead of buying some fucking salt.

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You can find the unassuming Citi Grill storefront in McGinely Square on Monticello Ave and Astor Place, or on Seamless or whatever app they’re on (I’m big on due diligence, as you can see).  Inside you will find three or four tables, an empty counter with a TV playing Afropop videos, and a set of wooden saloon doors leading to the kitchen. Its like  a Nollywood version of the restaurant in Big Night.  Its BYOB – big fucking win – and every dinner on the menu is either $13 or $15, which can feed two normal humans or one blogger. Most items on the menu are West African, but you can also get a gyro if you really, really need to.  

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As an additional bonus, there’s also a fridge filled with bissap, a deep garnet colored concoction made from steeped hibiscus, that you can choose to have at the restaurant like a civilized person, or you can take home to mix with vodka, like a degenerate. I recommend the latter.

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Mechoui Lamb

Two big turkey leg sized portions of grilled lamb.  The condiment of choice here is a tangy mustard and onion mixture that felt more at home on a bratwurst, but was actually a perfect accompaniment to its gamey goodness. The lamb is cooked simply with tons of crispy bits from the grill. Bonus points awarded if you suck the marrow out of these things like your favorite Casting Couch combatants. Get this.

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Poisson Braise

A whole talapia blackened and sauced. Everyone liked this, but I thought it was meh.  The biggest win here is you’re getting a fat whole fish for $15 bucks. Tilapia isn’t my favorite, but a solid value play.  Your choice.

Yassa Chicken

This Senegalese dish is half a chicken braised in a mixture of mostly onions, as well as some peppers, mustard and vinegar.  Honestly, the chicken was kind of forgettable, not because it was bad, but because the sauce was so good. It’s got the perfect balance of sweet and sour that aggressively promotes multiple bites.  Kind of reminds me of really good sausage and peppers where the veg is cooked down with a bit of vinegar and picks up some residual meat goo. Nom nom nom. My best bite on the dish was achieved by mixing up the remaining onions and sauce with some rice, like a toddler, and making the choo choo go in the tunnel.  I would buy it by the bucket if I could. You can also get this on fish.  

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Jollof with Dibi Lamb

Basically African fried rice. Cook down some veggies, aromatics and spices into a dense flavor-bomb and mix that into rice to get Jollof.  That seems pretty fucking simple, but has actually spawned international rivalries for the correct and tastiest interpretation of the dish. I’m agnostic on the Jollof War, but Citi’s interpretation is fine.   

The star here is the option to add dibi lamb, little grilled nuggets of fatty lamb goodness, as the protein. You also get more of that mustard an onion sauce to slather on your meat or run through your hair. Give me a bottle of Cava and I could eat about 40 of these things.  I’d eat these on Football Sundays instead of wings. Get this. 

Bissap

Take this home and mix it with vodka, club soda and lemon juice. Then go get pregnant.

It’s hard not to look at a place like Citi Grill and imagine what it could be with a little more investment into the physical space the business occupies and some marketing. They’re cooking good food, they’re offering something different, but until someone dragged me there in a snowstorm it was completely off my radar.  Granted, it’s only been open for a few months, but the point is still valid. I’d bet, in a totally unprovable hypothetical scenario, that if this food was coming out of Luna or Atlas House or any one of these cookie cutter, pH neutral establishments that you probably wouldn’t need to read this blog to have a meal there.

I’m not one of these hypocritical anti-Downtown jihadis preaching about the evils of Newark Ave. Downtown is fun, there’s great things Downtown. Honestly, you should probably spend more time on Newark Ave because the place is pretty much vacant storefronts at this point. But, ideally, Downtown shouldn’t be the totality of your JC experience.  It’s so easy to fall into a pattern of hitting up the same places over and over (I’m 100% guilty of this), so….don’t. You’re reading a food blog, I assume you care about this shit, you want something different – so go somewhere else.

 

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