The Melting Pot: Tastes and cultures collide at Sikia, Englewood’s new dining destination

A new appetite is growing in Englewood. And at Sikia, the appetite only gets bigger with every dish served. As the restaurant outlet of the Washburne Culinary Institute of Kennedy-King College, Sikia gives its culinary students the opportunity to practice their skills in a real restaurant setting, creating a high-end dining experience on the South Side. Englewood, too often characterized by its high crime levels, is now home to the newly rebuilt Kennedy-King College, where students and recent WCI graduates are bringing a fresh taste to the area.

Sikia has served an eclectic menu since its opening in August, offering, as its own website describes, “the flavors of a continent where the exotic mingles with the familiar.” The continent in question is Africa: a vast culinary terrain, which includes everything from the “memorable tagines of Morocco” to the “savory stews of the eastern grasslands and the curries of the Swahili coasts.” While WCI teaches the techniques of classical French cuisine, it’s clear that Sikia’s gustatory perspective remains unique to the cultural traditions of Africa. The restaurant’s conventional menu includes a handful of appetizers, soups, and salads, but also entrées where French technique meets, as Sikia advertises, “the variety of African cultures who prize wholesome, economical and thoroughly delicious cuisine.” According to LeTonya Black, a server and culinary student at the restaurant, there are some perennial favorites: the West African and Ground Nut Stew is a traditional stew, incorporating large, fatty pieces of goat meat in a savory and spicy peanut base. The West African Tilapia with Mango and Cilantro is a fresh take on a tilapia filet, rubbed with smoky and pungent spices and neutralized by the soothing freshness of sweet mango and a touch of cilantro chiffonade. Sikia’s side dishes are also reflective of this place “where the exotic mingles with the familiar”; its “jollof rice,” with nutmeg, ginger, Guinea pepper and cumin, nicely complements any of the entrees.

And yet, Sikia doesn’t forget the “familiar” cuisine it also advertises; the menu is peppered with recognizable dishes from the Caribbean and the South. Hand Ground Yellow Grits, Jerk Chicken, Sweet Potato Pie with Vanilla Ice Cream, and Black-Eyed Pea Fritters anchor the menu and add an everyday feeling to the restaurant’s meals. Chef Juan Brown, a recent WCI graduate who completed the two-year program in just one, explained the problem of cooking dishes with both cultural breadth and close tradition. “With this rustic and homely cuisine, it’s pretty hard to plate a stew,” Brown explains. “And you can’t beautify rice,” he adds, elaborating on the more common problems chefs at Sikia face on a conceptual level. Dishes served at Sikia are rarely done in an upscale setting, so preparing something as cumbersome and bulky as a stew proves to be a real challenge. Furthermore, Chef Otto Noble, another recent WCI graduate, expressed a similar frustration with the rigid French technique necessary in the kitchen. “Cooking is difficult,” he says. “Mostly because your own creativity, your own ideas aren’t allowed to come through. You’re not painting your own canvas.”

In a neighborhood like Englewood, Sikia may be seen as an anomaly. Yet, the restaurant’s presence and novel approach to American cuisine is not bizarre. The neighborhood itself enlivens the area’s culture with new approaches to old traditions, much like Sikia takes formidable African recipes and applies them to contemporary cuisine. Sikia, loosely translated from the Swahili as “an array of human senses,” signifies, as the restaurant explains, “a complex experience, one in which [both] concrete and abstract sense work together to make up total knowledge.”
Sikia, 740 W. 63rd St. Dinner: Thursday-Saturday, 5:30-9pm, Brunch: Sunday, 11am-3pm. (773)602-5200.