"Vous allez bien?”
I looked up from my distractingly excellent grilled fish, momentarily confused. This wasn’t the sort of greeting you generally expect in Philadelphia. “How’s it goin’,” maybe. Or just a simple “Everything’s good?” But “Vous allez bien?” Not so much.
That’s the thing about Kilimandjaro, though: You’re transported in more ways than one. Pull into the shopping center at 43rd and Chestnut, walk through the unprepossessing door, and enter a whole new world, borne along by food that rarely falls short of the utterly delicious.
The walls are painted a deep, rich red, like the color of a sky painted by the setting sun. African music—from Senegal, Mali, and beyond—gently pulses in the background. France 24 is on the TV. Masks keep watch over your meal.
And what a meal it is: one of the great bargains you’ll find this winter. In terms of the depth of flavor you get here for the money, you’d be very hard pressed to find a better restaurant than Kilimandjaro, which opened in 2005 and is owned, and whose kitchen is presided over, by Youma Ba, a warm, passionate emissary for the glories of this phenomenal cuisine.
Start with an order of fataya, homemade beef patties built on a grind of meat so intensely flavorful, so impeccably perfumed with a hint of bell pepper’s vegetal brightness, a note of spice heat giving shape to the otherwise sweet notes of onion, that you may very well look at your next meatball, or beef burrito, and wonder what you’re doing. It’s encased in a perfectly crisp pastry—think of it as an African version of an empanada, also made in-house—and impossible to stop eating well beyond the point of fullness.
So much of the food here evinces Ba’s ability to take a relatively short list of ingredients and transmogrify them into something infinitely greater than the sum of their individual parts. The onions defining the yassa chicken, for example, were as sweet and creamy as slices of perfectly ripe mango. Fork these with a nob of smoky, char-edged chicken expressive of Dijon mustard, red and green peppers, a hint of garlic and more, and marvel at how the ordinarily humble onion is used to such regal ends.
Dibi arrived looking for all the world like thin slices of overcooked lamb chop. One bite was enough to disavow me of any hint of concern. And while the meat was certainly cooked longer than you might expect—and while the texture was on the tougher side—it all mattered little in the face of such exquisite flavor: Aggressively seasoned and twirling with basil, each bite left a lingering presence of sweet earthiness on the lips. Simple grilled tilapia used that ordinarily unexciting fish as a launching pad for a range of flavors from the savory to the sweet and a palette for what Ba calls African salsa. Three parallel grill marks tattooed each side of the fish, and the smoke from the cooking allowed the edges of the slits that had been cut into the skin and flesh to turn an attractive shade of amber. The skin had bubbled up as if BB’s were hidden beneath it and was every bit as appealing as the flesh. That “African salsa”—onion, green and red peppers, lemon, mustard, a bit of oil—cut each bite and prepared you for the next. It was a thing of beauty.
In hindsight, it made sense that that other customer was curious about what was going on at our table: A friend and I had over-ordered, and, despite the Kilimandjarean mountain of food spread out before us, we had begun to eat our way through most of it, despite the overwhelming number of plates. By the time he asked his question—which loosely translates to, “It’s going well for you?”—it made perfect sense that he would pose it in the first place. And he must have known the answer in advance.
“Yes,” I answered him through my quickly on-setting food coma. “It’s going very well.”
How could it not be? I was halfway through my massive side portion of fried broken rice, each forkful similar in texture to a particularly al dente cous cous, the lingering perfume of the sauce dressing the delicate mound, the generous dusting of fine black pepper like some kind of song, the oil coating the tongue and allowing all the flavors to meld together into an ambrosial whole. It takes up to three hours to craft this dish; it is time unarguably well spent. And the plateful of sweet, nutty, hearty aloco—fried plantains—was nearly a memory, and a delicious one at that.
All that was left to do by then was to wash it down with the complex, concentrated homemade ginger juice (the aromatic hibiscus juice, also made in-house, is phenomenal as well), pack up what we couldn’t finish, and glide on home, full and happy and planning our next visit.
So: Oui. It went very, very well for us. Indeed.
4317 Chestnut St. 215.387.1970
Cuisine type: African
Hours: Lunch, 11:30am-2:30pm; Dinner, 5-10pm.
Price range: $2.50-$24.
Atmosphere: Simple and cozy, and very welcoming.
Food: Joyfully delicious and a serious bargain.
Service: Helpful and attentive.