by Sam Gugino
because little was known about the mysterious and very large continent of Africa until the 19th century, it was often referred to as the “Dark Continent.” For Americans, Africa is still a dark continent when it comes to African cuisine, with the exception of Moroccan cooking and occasional foodstuffs like Kenyan and Ethiopian coffee and Tunisian olive oil.
Though it is incongruously named for a mountain in East Africa, Kilimandjaro is a West African restaurant at 4317 Chestnut St. in West Philadelphia. Wedged into a strip mall, Kilimandjaro is conveniently next door to a state store, in case you forgot to BYOB. (Ed. Note: The spelling of Mount Kilimanjaro has no “d,” unlike the restaurant. It is in Tanzania and is the highest mountain in Africa at 19,340 feet.)
Dead ahead as you enter, high on the wall in front of the kitchen, a wide screen tv shows silently shows cartoons while African music gently wafts overhead. The walls are brightly painted and dotted with African art and a map of Africa in case you don’t know Somalia from Senegal, the latter being where owner Youma Bah hails from. The 20 seats are either comfy chairs or banquettes.
I was surprised when I ordered the fish balls and was told they were not available. Otherwise, the service is friendly and efficient, and servers speak a lilting French accent that is charming. Hopefully, tri-cornered beef patties will be available when you visit because this appetizer is wonderful. Somewhere between empanadas and spanikopitas, they are deep-fried but greaseless and filled with ground meat that is softly sweet and spicy enough to make the added hot sauce unnecessary for all except those with asbestos-lined stomachs.
Shrimp sauté is another dish with heat in perfect balance, and though the shrimp are nicely cooked, the overall impression is so-so. Senegal chicken is a first-rate main course. A perfectly baked half-chicken is smothered with sautéed onions and some sweet red bell pepper.
Though mislabeled as “gigot,” the French word for a whole leg of lamb, the lamb shank (“jaret” in French) was meaty and rich, though a trifle dry. And again, accompanied by lots of onions.
There are a variety of side dishes. The best is Senegalese rice, which tastes like fried rice but without the pork or grease. The flavorful brown rice is sprinkled with bits of peas, carrots and corn. Fried plantains are also quite good, emerging much like sweet potatoes in appearance, though a bit drier with firmer texture.
Fluffy couscous is not made from flour like the usual tiny pasta of North Africa but from the yucca (aka cassava) root vegetable. String beans were frozen and tasted like it.
- Kilimandjaro Restaurant, 4317 Chestnut St, 215-387-1970, Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, noon to midnight. No reservations or credit cards accepted. Lunch entrees, $8-$10; Dinner entrees, $10-$16.
- WINES: The South African wine industry was hidebound until the end of apartheid in 1990, but it has certainly made up for lost time. Among the white varietals, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc (once known as Steen) lead the way. one of the best examples of Sauvignon Blanc is Buitenverwachting Beyond 2014 (Code: 72720, $13.99), which shows New World fruit and old world acidity.
Wildekrans Walker Bay 2015 (Code: 49507, $12, imported by the Boutique Wine Collection, located only a few blocks from the restaurant, is a good example of South African Chenin Blanc. A touch sweeter with than Sauvignon Blanc it is still quite crisp and delicious. Also try AA Badenhorst Secateurs Swartland 2013 (Code: 37426,$15.99) and Man Family Wines Coastal 2013 (again, look for the 2014, Code: 37600, $9.99)
Chestnut Hill resident Sam Gugino is a former Philadelphia Daily News restaurant critic and Wine Spectator Magazine columnist.