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story.lead_photo.caption The six main dishes at Alexander’s Kontiki African Restaurant include Couscous & Chicken or Fish, livened with vegetables. - Photo by Helaine Williams

In the sea of cookie-cutter chain restaurants in central Arkansas, it's refreshing to see any eatery that offers international fare in general, and African fare in particular.

My husband's and my exposure to food from what we call the Motherland, outside of a 2006 trip to Nigeria, had been restricted to occasional private celebrations and festivals. So we were among those excited to see the debut of Kontiki African Restaurant, in the former home of Alexander Country Cafe. The restaurant's grand opening was Jan. 21.

Kontiki African Restaurant

Address: 13420 Arkansas 111, Alexander

Hours: 3:30-8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-8 p.m Friday-Sunday

Cuisine: African

Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D

Alcoholic beverages: No

Reservations: Yes

Carryout: Yes

(501) 615-8504

We first visited for lunch on a Saturday in February. Outside and in, the restaurant still looks like an old, weathered and careworn country cafe, dark-wood interior and all. But the atmosphere was pleasant and comfortable.

We got an early surprise from owner Christian Domingo, who is originally from Sierra Leone. He served us a small sample plate: plantain slices, a nicely salty/spicy pepper sauce and hush-puppy-resembling balls of rice akara, also known as rice and banana doughnuts and a Sierra Leone delicacy.

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Photos by Helaine Williams

The menu is fairly small, with six main dishes and four appetizers. We ordered the fish version of the Couscous & Chicken or Fish ($12.99), served with a vegetable medley that includes broccoli, carrots, cucumber and cauliflower. My husband loved the three fillets of spicy, near-perfectly-cooked fish and vegetables; in fact, he wishes the vegetables had been more plentiful. And, although he didn't dislike the couscous, he wishes there had been a rice option to the dish.

If we both had ordered rice dishes, however, we both would have had a wait. The couscous dish arrived quickly. But the chicken version of the Peanut Butter Soup & Rice (also $12.99), a peanut-based soup that also offers a beef option, took a good 30 minutes or so to arrive because the kitchen had run out of streamed white rice and more had to be cooked. The server apologized twice, first when breaking the news and again when finally delivering the dish.

Luckily an appetizer, Roast Meat Skewers ($5.99), helped the time pass. The two skewers of beef marinated in peanut butter and African spices were cooked just right; the meat was firm but not tough, and the accompanying green pepper and onion slices provided the perfect accent taste.

Also luckily, the soup proved to be worth the wait. Consisting more of boned chicken pieces than broth, it was well-seasoned and tender and, as with the skewer meat, bore a tantalizing hint of peanut butter taste. And, as was the case with the fish/couscous entree, there were a couple cubes of beef thrown in for lagniappe. The rice, like the couscous, was in generous supply.

The nonalcoholic Ginger Beer ($1.25) is too strong for anyone not used to the taste. An infusion of water helped, but even diluted, it was still somewhat tough on an unprepared throat.

Only a few customers were there when we arrived, but during our visit, the trickle of dine-in and eat-out customers grew steadily and became more diverse. Our server was one of only two, and a trainee at that. So we were not surprised -- and, personally, not particularly bothered -- that she didn't make it back to our table to ask how we were doing or refill our water glasses.

Our second visit was on a Friday in March. We arrived about 10 minutes after opening. Apparently weekday lunchtimes are more subdued. We were the first arrivals; two men were the only other diners during our visit, during which we table-danced to the brisk African music that was playing.

The lone server, a young man, was minding the store. After a short wait, he, too, brought a small sample plate along with water and the menus.

This time around, we opened with a chicken version of the Pepper Soup, a "spicy soup served with either beef or chicken, russet potatoes and vegetables" and featuring a tomato-based broth. It comes in an 8-ounce bowl ($5.99) or a 16-ounce bowl ($7.99). We announced that we wanted to split the 16-ounce, so the server brought two 8-ounce bowls. The soup was tasty, but unfortunately for our sensitive palates, the word "pepper" was an understatement. It was so spicy, we asked for containers to take it home and dilute it. (It took multiple infusions of tomato sauce, water, and finally, heavy whipping cream to get it to where it wouldn't incinerate our tongues. Even then, it cleared our sinuses.)

We did much better with the main dishes, one of which was Cassava Leaves & Rice ($13.99), served Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays according to the menu, which describes it as consisting of smoked fish, cassava leaves (yucca root), chicken, lima beans and onions sauteed in palm oil and served with white rice. The version we were served featured beef, but its fresh, earthy-greens flavor made it irresistible. We also tried a delicious chicken version of the bearably spicy Jollof Rice & Stew ($12.99), white rice enhanced with tomato paste, bell peppers, onions and west African spices and also offering a choice of beef. This time, with only four customers to wait on, our server did check on us and refill our water glasses.

Kontiki seems to be just what the folks were hungry for. We hope the place not only stays around, but expands its menu ... and into other locations.

Weekend on 04/05/2018

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