The first time I walked by Balimaya in the Bronx, I simply took a photo and made a note to come back. A quick search online brings up almost nothing, except for a small Rachel Wharton Daily News article that mentions a customer from Mali. With my interest heightened but trying not to get too excited, I returned again, only to find nothing on offer for lunch during Ramadan. I did have a short conversation with the matriarch of the kitchen in her limited English and my very limited French, and ascertained that she was from Mali as well.
Patiently awaiting one of the five pillars of Islam to pass, I returned again last week after Ramadan for lunch and once again was faced with what seemed like an empty steam table. Luckily a couple lids were pulled off to reveal two available options: chicken and fish. The chicken seemed more appetizing, so I pointed at it and sat down. I was there around noon and told the soups come out around 1pm, so future diners should heed this advice.
It seems that Balimaya wants to advertise more than Mali for sure. Postcards of Alassane Ouattara, the president of Cote d'Ivoire are on the wall as well as an Africa's first presidents poster. Islamic texts in Arabic also adorn the walls, as does an advertisement for a tae kwon do course that looks to be taught by a West African.
I was asked whether I wanted a small or large portion, and if any experience in West African restaurants has gone to good use, it is to pick the small. What came to me was an $8 or $9 (depending on the price of the bissap drink I also ordered) mountain of chicken that was easily two full meals.
As seen above, the plate is also served with a large portion of puffy white rice and a small squirt of pepper sauce that should be approached, much less used, with caution. The sliced onions and tomatoes that top the chicken are part of a mustard and vinegar sauce that is used on many types of West African grilled meat dishes. Here the mixture is sharp and oily, both in favorable ways.
Those oils that collect at the bottom of your plate are perfect for adding to a spoonful of rice. The pieces of chicken, already expertly marinated, also take in the sharpness of the sauce, each bite a work of art. This stuff is good.
On this visit the woman from Mali was busy in the kitchen and I was served by another friendly woman, who was from Guinea Conakry, the country English speakers refer simply as Guinea, whose capital is Conakry. Not Guinea-Bissau, that is to say. Most of Guinea is closer to Bamako, the capital of Mali than further flung regions of the northeast such as Timbuktu which have little in common with the capital. The lingua franca of the three ladies working here I do not know.
My trip to these regions of Mali many years ago, written about in my book Calm of the Niger, was met with the unfortunate situation of never having delicious meals. When I first learned that the chef was from this lovely country, I admit to doubting the food. After one meal, these doubts are gone, and I am looking forward to coming back with some friends and having a larger spread.
[UPDATE 08 AUGUST 2016: Here is that spread]
Grilled fish ($16)
Lamb head stew ($12). Look close!
This lamb head had no chance
Peanut butter stew ($10)
Potato leaf stew ($10)
Sweet plantains ($5)
"Couscous" comes with fish.
Our cup of dessert was mouni ($2, above), usually a breakfast porridge made of millet flour rolled into tiny balls. The tang from the millet and added sugar is reminiscent of candy somehow. A dollup of sour cream comes on top.
It is very clear that Balimaya is a special place.