Take refuge at Sahara Oasis
Nov. 9, 2001

Bryan Haynes/The Gazette

Sahara Oasis manager and chef, Esi Sayan, holds an entree that consists of Tilapia rice and Plantai with spinach.

Liberia-born Femore Sanyon wants to give Sahara Oasis' customers respite from the concrete jungle. From its thoughtful and modestly elegant décor to its quenching West African cuisine, Sahara Oasis is a jewel.

But nestled on a quaint commercial strip in Hyattsville between Baskin Robbins and a barbershop, the restaurant's humble exterior establishes it as buried treasure. Once inside, the significance of its name becomes apparent.

Black velvet drapes gather into sashes to display a miniature forest in the restaurant's wall-size window. A cactus, wooden giraffes, and plants with large fronds surround a stirring three-foot statue with a beak hanging to its belly and fish and turtles carved into outstretched wings.

In the corner of the raised platform, a thin, scantily-clad man stands holding a gourd as an earring the length of his sagacious face dangles from one ear.

Sanyon himself has never been parched in the dry Sahara desert region and experienced the reward of a water-filled oasis after a long journey. But he's read about it and thinks he has a darn good idea of what it must feel like: "If you travel in the desert, it's hot out there. It's rough out there. You don't see the little Sahara oasis. But if you enter into the oasis, you come to the place where it's refreshing. The food is good and it's surprisingly nice," says Sanyon. "It's like a pearl. It's a hot world out here and we are cool in here."

Sanyon and his wife, Emma, have taken care to create their brand of oasis ­ a distinct and intimate dining refuge. A three-tiered chandelier swoops down from the ceiling. Vibrantly colored fruit shimmers and spills from a horn of plenty onto a canvas beside a metallic gold archway. Framed Ghanaian masks adorn its walls, and plastic pink and reddish roses decorated with tiny water droplets garnish its tables.

Once seated in white high-backed chairs, guests dine on golden place mats shaped like seashells to devour staples from Ghana, Nigeria or Liberia using stately, yet simple, silverware.

"Our concept is 'just keep it clean, please,'" says Sanyon. "[Prepare] fresh food and give them cloth napkins to wipe their hands with and finger bowls to wash their hands."

Seventy-five percent of the people who dine at the 60-capacity restaurant, says Sanyon, eat the food in traditional African style -- with their hands. That's not surprising since the bulk of the clientele are Africans.

"We get African Americans, but mostly Africans come," says Sanyon. "They know of us [through word of mouth] and then they come to the neighborhood. We get very few people from the neighborhood."

And of those who do come to Sahara Oasis, many don't linger to dote on its charming atmosphere. Within two hours one Monday evening, a steady stream of stragglers files in without removing their jackets -- they order carry out.

But whether guests choose to carry out, utilize Sahara Oasis' catering service or impact the menu, keeping a diverse clientele content furthers the oasis effect.

"What they want is what we try to do," says Sanyon.

The menu includes American items like shrimp scampi and steak for the xenophobic palate. And since it first opened in 1998, the restaurant has honored special requests. Items like fufu, a mashed potato-like staple made of plantain flour, which is to Nigeria as white rice is to China, has always been on the menu. But by popular demand, Liberian pepper soup and Nigerian egusi, a delectable mix of spinach, palm oil and melon seeds, were added later.

Even without these treats, the fare is worth more than a few trips. With the culinary help of Sanyon's wife and daughter Esi Sanyon, a 1994 Northwestern High School graduate, Sahara Oasis redefines bean stew with its black-eyed pea version in a red sauce angled to wake up your throat. They also serve Talapia, a meaty, robust fish cooked with the head on. Topped with an onion and pepper relish, their rendition is seasoned so well that no sauce is not an option.

But the food tastes as good as it should. Sanyon is no novice. He worked in the food industry for 20 years before setting up his own shop. A graduate of the now defunct Benjamin Franklin Business School in the District, Sanyon is trained as an accountant, and admits that owning a restaurant was not his childhood dream.

"It was a lucrative business," says Sanyon, "so I decided to go into it."

He took his first food industry job as a chef's helper at Clyde's in Georgetown and later became the executive chef at Billy Martin's Tavern, also in Georgetown. Just before opening Sahara Oasis, though, he worked for an insurance company that handled workers compensation claims.

Still, when you taste the food at Sahara Oasis, you appreciate every fork that led the Sanyons down the road to your taste buds.

Sahara Oasis is located at 3010 Hamilton Street, Hyattsville. The phone number is 301-853-1280.