By Amy L. Carlson   Published Jun 06, 2005 at 5:43 AM Photography: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography

{image1}Club Timbuktu, 520 E. Center St., was quiet when we first visited on a recent Wednesday evening, so we hopped up on the stools at the long, barren bar and sampled a South African red wine while waiting for our dinner companions. Our friendly bartender and server, Megan, chatted with us while we looked around at our surroundings and perused the worala (dinner) menu, which features a black and white map imprint of Africa.

Not long after we were seated people began to pour through the doors, and it soon became apparent that Club Timbuktu is like no other restaurant in Milwaukee in that the venue not only is one of good, unique cuisine and cocktails, it is also a home for poetry readings, Brazilian, African and reggae music nights. On the evening of our visit, it was a gathering place for political groups. Owners Omar Gagali and Youssouf Komaraest have succeeded in creating one of the most culturally diverse gathering spots in Milwaukee.

Décor at Timbuktu is somewhat sparse, but what is there piques interest. African artwork and earthy tones dominate, and the scattered tables feature minimal ornamentation. The front is made up simply of glass doors and windows, which allow one to peek into the whirlwind of events this venue hosts in the evening hours.

The menus at Club Timbuktu feature a mixture of American and African cuisine. For lunch (telero), diners can choose from simple sandwiches, including chicken salad, a club (Club Timbuktu), wraps and cheeseburgers -- all for under $6 -- or they can sample the more traditional African dishes that dominate the dinner menu.

We began with the creamy artichoke dip (cream cheese, sweet onions and parmesan cheese, $4.95) and the Somalian sambusa (deep fried pockets of ground turkey and potatoes, $4.95). The artichoke dip was served with lightly toasted points of white bread, and was pleasingly creamy and light. We thoroughly enjoyed the Somalian sambusa, which had a homey, comfort food flavor and feel.

{image2}For our entrees, we tried the Mogadishu fish soup (a fish stew made of king fish, tilapia, tomatoes, East African spices and mixed vegetables, $6.95). While I was a little hesitant with this dish at first because it sounded so unique, it was, the highlight of our meal. The stew was chili-like in its texture and flavor and carried a wonderful tomato and spice flavor that permeated the flaky fish. Fresh lime served alongside the bowl added just the perfect amount of citrus. This dish is a must-try at Club Timbuktu.

We also sampled the komara house special, which, at only $9.95, was a heaping plate of tender sautéed chicken breast with onions, tomatoes, mandarin oranges, green pepper and a spicy sauce over rice. Be prepared to take food home from your visit here, as entrée sizes will make two meals for most diners. This was true of tigajigi and rice (peanut stew, $9.95) and hopping john catfish ($9.95). The tigajigi, a stew of chicken, ground peanuts, potatoes, onions, tomatoes and spices over rice, was good, but it was cold when we first received it. A quick warm-up in the kitchen, however, made the dish something unique and flavorful and well worth a try. Hopping john catfish had a heavier, but flavorful and crisp breading, and was served with a good roasted corn and tomato sauce.

Club Timbuktu has recently added brunch to its repertoire, and, true to form, the menu delights with combinations of traditional breakfast items and African dishes, so you can enjoy Algerian red wine reduction sauce with your roast beef, and plaintains and cous cous with your scrambled eggs.

Club Timbuktu is open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., for lunch and 5-9 p.m. for dinner; and Saturday and Sunday for brunch from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Smoking allowed. Vegetarian selections are available. For more information on Club Timbuktu, call (414) 265-7000. The Timbuktu Web site is clubtimbuktu.com.