A taste of West Africa
A little off the beaten track in Atlanta, there’s a restaurant that’s been grabbing attention since its opening in 2017.
Bermudian Cathy Trott and Matthew Owusu, her Ghanaian husband, are the owners of Café Songhai, an upscale West African diner in Peachtree Corners.
For those unfamiliar with the area, it’s roughly 40 minutes from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport, 25 minutes from Lenox Mall and a stone’s throw from Buford Highway and its diverse food community.
“The area where the restaurant is, there is a relatively large immigrant population [of mainly] African and Asians [and so] that was part of our target audience [but also] Americans and others who are interested in trying new foods,” Ms Trott said.
“Atlanta’s pretty spread out. Nothing in Atlanta is less than 25 minutes. It's pretty easy to get to. It’s off a main thoroughfare.”
The idea for Café Songhai came from her husband who was working in the pharmaceutical industry in London, England, but, because he was passionate about food, had a part-time job in an African restaurant.
Once he married Ms Trott and moved to the US, he began helping out at “one of the first well known West African restaurants in Atlanta”.
It didn’t take long before he decided to open his own.
Ms Trott, who worked in banking for many years before joining a software company, was happy to lend her support.
She had herself taken a huge leap of faith years earlier. In 1992, while she was in graduate school in South Carolina, the US government held a green card lottery that was open to Bermudians.
“I applied and I got it. I don't know after that how many times Bermuda was eligible, but at the time I got it I think I may have been the only born Bermudian to get it.”
The green card allowed her to remain in the US, but it carried the condition that she had to have a full-time job.
“I was still finishing graduate school, but my uncle had a dental office in Tennessee. So I worked for him in Nashville to meet that green card visa lottery requirement.”
On graduating, Ms Trott worked in commercial banking with the Bank of America in Nashville.
“They did not have an international department, and that was my speciality, so I moved to Atlanta to join an international team.
“And then I went to Wells Fargo, under international trade banking and now I'm with SAP, a technology company, and I do, basically, fintech.”
With most of her family on the island she did consider returning home at one point, but when she searched for jobs, “nothing really came up”.
“And then I just decided to continue here in the US,” Ms Trott said.
She has been thrilled to partner with her husband’s entrepreneurial spirit.
Café Songhai opened in 2017 with a positive review in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Your lips will tingle long after you leave lunch, a happy reminder to come back soon.”
According to Ms Trott the recipes are “primarily Ghanaian and Nigerian”, passed down through her husband’s family.
“His background was chemistry and the sciences so he was generally a really good cook, but then he just kind of perfected it,” she said.
At Café Songhai Matthew Owusu makes his food less lively than what is found in West Africa where dishes “can be quite spicy with heat, and what they call pepper”.
For people who are unfamiliar with Ghanaian and Nigerian food, Cathy Trott suggests a few dishes:
“Jollof is a rice dish that's become very popular based on social media. There is an ongoing debate between West Africans, primarily Ghanaians and Nigerians, for who makes the best jollof. It’s called jollof wars. There's actually videos, etc.”
Fufu also makes her list along with egusi, a soup popular in Nigeria.
“For Bermudians, I would recommend Waakye. It's like a smoked black-eyed peas and rice dish that will be somewhat familiar.
“The other thing I would suggest, we have a whole grilled fish - head and tail. To Americans that's a little off putting but to islanders, we are accustomed to eating the whole fish. So our whole grilled fish is very popular.”
Social media and a wider interest in the African diaspora helped give the restaurant a buzz.
“Afrobeats is primarily West African music. So that's similar to the food we serve. You have those artists, you have that music, you have more people being interested in visiting Ghana,” she said.
“In 2019 [Ghana] started this ‘year of return’ where they were encouraging Americans, Black Americans in particular, to return to Ghana. That had a lot of publicity,” she said.
As a knock-on effect, people planning to visit Africa would seek out Café Songhai to sample its dishes; they would frequently return to the restaurant after to relive the trip through their food.
“Maybe a couple of years ago, there was a food challenge on TikTok and people were trying out fufu. So we would get people who would come and say I want some fufu based on that challenge.”
Soft and doughy, fufu is a staple dish in Ghana. “It’s like mashed potatoes, you can't eat it by itself,” Ms Trott said.
At Café Songhai, staff were happy to “educate” diners on “the best soup or stew” to combine with it.
Apart from the food, guests can enjoy live music at Café Songhai. On December 1, Lin Rountree, whose song Solid is at the top of the national billboard contemporary jazz singles chart, will perform.
“We’ve restarted [our] jazz series. That’s been very popular. It's a really, really cool vibe; a crowd that I would say is probably 40 and over, just a relaxing atmosphere.
“You can get food, you can get drinks and listen to the band. Some people jump up and dance,” Ms Trott said. The response overall, “has been great”, she added.
“We’ve established a really good reputation. And that's half the battle: to have a good reputation, have really good reviews, make people feel welcome. And then there'll be repeat customers.”
• Café Songhai is located at 3380 Holcomb Bridge Road in Peachtree Corners, Atlanta. For more information, visitcafesonghai.com/. For Bermudians visiting Ghana, Matthew Owusu’s family operates The Luxe River Camp@Mangoase on the Volta River. For more information, visithttps://shorturl.at/juBW1