Unrated during the pandemic

Kevin Onyona is determined to introduce African fine dining to a broad audience. The pandemic threw him some curveballs.

No sooner did he open Swahili Village in the basement space that previously housed Honeysuckle and Vidalia — March 15, 2020 — than Onyona was relegated to serving the food of his native Kenya as takeout. Only in June was he able to offer customers a look at the dining room, into which he had poured more than $2 million for renovations.

Unfortunately, most of his intended audience — employees at the nearby International Monetary Fund, State Department, World Bank and foreign embassies — was working remotely. Making matters worse, Swahili Village would have had to open a month earlier to qualify for federal government assistance.

“Very scary times,” says the self-trained chef, 53, who grew up in the town of Homa Bay on the shores of Lake Victoria. “But I’m very hopeful.”

Nyama choma is one of the dishes that could save Swahili Village, a spinoff of the more casual restaurant of the same name in Beltsville. Eaten throughout Kenya, nyama choma stars chunks of chargrilled beef or goat that have been marinated in a spice blend whose ingredients list goes on and on, like the Nile. We’re talking coriander, turmeric, ginger, cumin, paprika, methi seeds (fenugreek) but also cornstarch, sugar and MSG. It’s a mouthful. Also wonderful and wicked.

Then again, the hospitality is a good case for extending the life of the African newcomer, too. Ethiopian food is a familiar sight in the area. Kenyan food less so. One of the first things you’ll be asked is if you know the cuisine, which the young staff is thrilled to describe if you ask. Onyona has his servers watch how each dish is made before they hit the floor, a requirement that helps them address any questions. If you haven’t had it before, you might not think to add a side dish of ugali, a white block of cornmeal mash, to your order. Kenyans wouldn’t think of eating a meal without it.

“Ugali doesn’t ride its own wave,” says a server, who compares the staple to tofu, in that ugali absorbs the flavor of whatever it touches. Some diners mold a bit into a utensil for scooping up other food. Like charred beef and goat, ugali is eaten across Africa, albeit under different names. (West Africans know it as fufu.)

The appetizer sampler, including potato slices dipped in lentil batter and fried to golden, gives you an appreciation for how Kenyan cuisine has been shaped by India, Portugal, Britain and elsewhere. The sight of a fat samosa sets the mouth up for Indian accents, peas and potatoes. Instead, the hot shell cracks to reveal a stuffing of ground beef and herbs. The stubby sausages, meanwhile, are straight off an English breakfast table. Kenya was a British colony from 1920 to 1963. “We grew up on English bangers,” says Onyona. The trio of snacks comes with a comet of sweet Thai chile sauce on the plate, one of the restaurant’s non-African flourishes.

A server might suggest with your meal a little thimble of what looks like liquid fire: pili pili, a habanero-stoked condiment and an exception to Kenya’s relatively tame flavor profile. Whatever it touches, it torches. I love it. So do West Africans, Onyona tells me.

Onyona refers to goat as his countrymen’s go-to meat. One of the prizes on his menu is mbuzi mchuzi, chopped goat cooked low and slow with onions and garlic, rendering the meat tender. A gravy flavored with curry and bell peppers fills the mouth with warm spices.

Onyona, who came to the United States in 1999, studied to be a priest, but he says his true calling was cooking. A sense of his passion unfolds when he talks about watching his grandmother make something wonderful from not much more than water, onions, salt and fresh fish thrown into a clay pot.

He was mesmerized by the way she moved the wood around in the fire, so that the fish never overcooked or fell apart. The young Onyona was content just devouring the intense broth. His fondness for fish surfaces in whole fried tilapia, its steaming white flesh complemented by a curtain of masala sauce mixed with coconut milk and finished with fresh cilantro. (The love-it-or-hate-it herb makes frequent appearances among the entrees.)

You don’t need to eat meat to tap into a treasure. Lentils cooked to softness with onions and garlic and added to a masala sauce along with diced tomatoes and bell peppers are as hearty a pleasure as any here. The stew gets finished with coconut milk, a lovely binder.

The food is distinctive not just for the beautiful interplay of spices, but for the fact that each dish is prepared to order. The consistency — be it takeout or on the patio — comes courtesy of chef de cuisine Alfredo Hernandez, 42, who previously cooked at the original Swahili Village.

Main courses are outfitted with a choice of two sides. Each has something to recommend it, but the escorts I tend to lean on are collard greens and basmati rice. The vibrant greens are shredded into thin streamers and seasoned with not much more than caramelized onions before they’re lightly warmed in oil. What makes them the best for miles around turns out to be the unseen addition of chicken fat in their warm-up. The fluffy rice benefits from fried onions and garlic, but also cinnamon and black peppercorns, most of which are crushed so only their punch remains.

Like ugali, chapati is a useful tool for sponging sauces. The unleavened flatbread, scorched from the skillet, is similar to Indian roti, if a bit heavier. Other side dish options include fine-cut sauteed cabbage, dense and delicious fried plantains, and a creamed spinach any steakhouse would be happy to claim. Coconut milk binds the version at Swahili Village.

Colorful and boozy, the drinks look like they’ve been plucked from a Carnival cruise. One of the showiest is a margarita set aflame in the bar, a spectacle that probably works best if you’re seated in the underground restaurant. By the time our liquid floor show was ferried up the steep stairs and onto the front patio, only a shimmer of blue fire remained. Kudos, though, to the guide who delivered it to the table without spilling a drop.

I’ll be frank: The drinks list could use an upgrade. For now, your best bet is to wash a meal back with a Tusker lager from Kenya.

Diners of a certain vintage might remember Wazuri, the long-gone Dupont Circle restaurant that promised — and delivered — “A Taste of Africa” in the early 2000s. I can close my eyes and conjure owner Kojo Davis, sporting his trademark African cap and tunic, and smile at the memory of fetri, seemingly the distillation of dozens of mothers’ cures for homesickness, brimming with corn, tomato and okra, as well as diced chicken and lamb.

While its focus is more narrow, the more formal Swahili Village is picking up where Wazuri left off. Onyona hired an African architect from New York to rethink the space. When I went inside the vast dining room to announce my party, I caught a glimpse of handsome paintings of a herd of elephants here and a wildebeest migration there. The owner has nicknamed his 295-seat restaurant “the Consulate,” a nod to the embassy personnel he still hopes to attract.

Next up: a Swahili Village for Newark, with great support from the brand builder’s landlord. Onyona expects to open there by September.

First things first, though. The Washington restaurant, which recently grew its menu to include lamb, red snapper and jollof rice, would look even better with more people in it.

After my last meal, I asked our fervent server to pack up leftovers, because no way am I going to leave any collard greens or goat stew behind. He returned with a bag and a request: “Tell everyone you know!”


More from Food:

Swahili Village 1990 M St. NW. 202-758-3384. theconsulatedc.com. Open for delivery, takeout, indoor and outdoor dining 11 a.m. to midnight daily. Prices: Dinner appetizers $6.50 to $10.40, main courses (with two sides) $19.80 to $29.90. Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates, Uber Eats. Accessibility: Wheelchair users can eat on the patio or in the downstairs dining room, which is reached via an elevator in the lobby of the neighboring building.