Ethnic excursion
At eclectic Bintimani, take pick of African, Caribbean, Filipino or American soul food

BY POLLY CAMPBELL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dear Restaurant Lady,

Ever since my last trip to the Caribbean, I sometimes get terrible cravings for goat curry -- even in the middle of the night. It's not in the freezer section at the grocery. What can I do?

-- Nowhere to Turn

Dear Nowhere:

Fortunately, professional help is available for your problem. You probably just assumed goat curry wasn't on the menu of any Cincinnati restaurants, but since Bintimani opened in Forest Park in January, it is -- even up to 2:30 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Bintimani
**

Food: Fair

Service: Fair.

Atmosphere: Fair.

Value: Good.

What: African/Caribbean, Filipino/Asian and American Southern multicultural down-home cafe.

Where: 1178 W. Kemper Road, in the Promenade shopping center, Forest Park.

When: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

Recommended dishes: Fried plantains, lumpia shanghai, jerk chicken, goat curry, sweet potato pie.

Vegetarian choices: Mostly side dishes, lumpia sariwa.

Sound level: Moderate 65 decibels (most restaurants range from 60 decibels, a dignified calm, to 90 decibels, a din).

Prices: Lunch buffet: $4.99, dinner buffet: $6.99. Dinner entrees $6.99-$11.99, most are $7.99. Dessert 99 cents-$2.99.

Paying for it: American Express, MasterCard, VISA, Discover.

Reservations: Not necessary.

Miscellaneous: No liquor license, children's menu, wheelchair-accessible.

Phone: 674-0315.

Not just goat curry, either. If you crave fufu, fried plantain or Filipino oxtails, you'll find them on Bintimani's menu, which is eclectic, to say the least. This is Cincinnati's only African-Caribbean-Filipino-American soul food restaurant.

Bintimani is in the Promenade shopping center, next door to the Jazz in the Park nightclub, hence the late weekend hours. Owners are Michael Foday, who's from Sierra Leone, and Francesca Knipp, from the Philippines.

The restaurant is both exotic and homey. The ethnic specialties may be things you've never had before, but most turn out to be home-style dishes, simply cooked and presented, nothing scary.

Though it's got some work to do in terms of service and presentation, Bintimani is an interesting excursion for ethnic food aficionados and a good neighborhood spot for down-home southern cooking. But try to keep your goat-curry cravings to the weekend. Some of the African, Caribbean and Filipino dishes are available only then.

Good jerk chicken

The curry ($8.99) is milder and less complex than an Indian curry. (Caribbean cooking includes plenty of African and Indian influences.) Though you might expect goat to be similar to lamb, it's more like tender chicken. Even the bones aren't much bigger than chicken bones (or this was a scrawny goat). There's lots of sauce for the rice.

Jerk chicken ($7.99) is the most popular dish to make it out of the Caribbean. I've never been to the islands, but a well-traveled friend deemed the jerk chicken authentic in taste and preparation. The flavor comes from a dry spice mix rubbed on pieces of chicken that are hacked up -- bones and all -- then grilled crispy. You'll taste allspice and a fairly stiff dose of hot pepper -- nothing painful.

If Caribbean food has complicated influences, consider Filipino, which incorporates Spanish, Chinese and Malaysian. There is the Asian-style fried noodle dish pancit on the menu ($6.99), as well as beef and broccoli ($7.99). The appetizer lumpia shanghai ($2.49) is kin to egg rolls: cigar-shaped rolls filled with pork and deliciously deep-fried.

From the Spanish side of the Filipino family comes adobo ($7.99). It's a simple stew of chicken -- mostly wings -- in a flavorful sauce, almost a gravy, that's garlicky and just a bit spicy. It takes some messy finger work to eat the meat off the wings. Then you can pour the sauce on the rice. It's filling and comforting.

Chicken Afritada ($7.99) is another Filipino stew. The chicken is in bigger pieces than the adobo and is cooked with pieces of carrot and potato and chickpeas in a thick tomato-based sauce that tastes most pungently of black pepper.

If you haven't gotten jet lag yet, there are African dishes to try. Plantain, a big starchy banana, is popular throughout Africa, Mr. Foday says, and also popular in Central and South America.

Here, they're served fried as an appetizer ($1) and have all the best appetizer qualities: crispy, sweet, a little greasy.

Most of the African soups and stews are available weekends only. They're an acquired taste, our waitress warned. She suggested the peanut soup ($6.99) or fish stew ($8.99), but I tried the egusi soup ($7.99). This is a salty, spicy soup of greens and chicken, mixed with ground squash seeds. We ordered fufu with it, just so we could say we'd tried it.

Fufu, it seems to me, is something you'd only like if it was a childhood food -- and if you grew up in Nigeria. It's a big ball of starch, like a matzo ball, that you pull off bit by bit and dip in soup. The slippery texture of the egusi soup makes it easier to swallow the fufu without chewing it. It's something you eat for sustenance rather than taste.

Service quirks

It took a long time to get our food on my second visit -- almost 45 minutes. There's no beer and wine to drink while waiting, though I had an almost burningly fresh cold ginger drink during the wait.

Our waitress was nice, but new, and didn't know much about the dishes, which aren't explained thoroughly on the menu. If you don't want to wait, there's a buffet at lunch and dinner, but it didn't look appealing.

On the buffet is a variety of dishes, mostly from the American South, along with pancit, adobo and jollof rice.

Dessert was the only down-home food we tried. Light, lemony sweet potato pie ($1.79) and flaky-crusted apple pie ($1.79) were the best. Ask what's homemade: the desserts that aren't are frozen and below average.

Reviews are done anonymously at Enquirer expense. Ratings take into consideration quality of food, service, presentation and atmosphere, balanced against price.

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