When my friends Sheryl and Ralph visit from Connecticut, the pressure’s on to pick just the right place in the City for us to catch up and enjoy a good dinner. Poc Chuc and Kiss Sea Food had fit the bill beautifully in the past. The Thursday, February 4, dinner at Radio Africa was the perfect choice this go-round.
Menu for February 4 & 5
Two nights a week, the Radio Africa pop-up restaurant takes over the mezzanine seating and kitchen at Coffee Bar. I’d heard from friends that the backless bench seating at some of the tables might feel a little hard over the course of the evening. So, when I called in my reservation, I requested chairs with backs because my dining companions were “older”. This would turn into the service theme for our evening with the staff tuned in to be extra solicitous of my “elders”. Seating a party of three in chairs turned out to be more of a challenge than expected as most of the tables are lined up along a long wall with bench seating on one side. Our ingenious hostess configured our three chairs on two sides of the corner of the communal table. We wound up having the table to ourselves for the evening though the rest of the space was nearly filled to capacity.
The handicapped lift was at the ready for my friends’ arrival. But Sheryl and Ralph snuck up on us by climbing the stairs to the open loft space. The hostess seemed to be a bit surprised that they were neither infirm nor as old as I might have intimated but took it all in stride. Our waiter explained the menu, speaking slowly and louder, I imagine, for the “elders”.
We went with the tasting menu for $40 per person that includes everything on the daily menu served family style. Here are the dishes in order of service starting with the mezze.
Edamame hummus with Tartine bread 6 – Velvety with some chunky yet softer bits blended into the puree with dark green, high quality olive oil. Delicious slathered on Tartine’s bread.
Butter lettuce salad with tangerines, radishes and goat cheese 8 – Chiffon-like, delicate leaves of lettuce with the lightest whisper of dressing, exquisite interplay of juicy tart-sweet citrus, peppery bite of crispy radishes, and fresh creamy goat cheese. So striking in its quiet simplicity and perfect balance.
Radio Africa house smoked trout and shrimp Bacala with walnut bread 8 – Too salty for me, but what a treat to have more great bread. (I didn’t miss injera at all.)
Yellowfin tuna kitfo (Ethiopian tartare) crostini with sea urchin creme fraiche 8 – First introduction of Ethiopian spice applied quite lightly to the raw yellowfin tuna, loved the sea urchin crème mingled with the microgreens.
Parsnip-leek soup garnished with Spanish ham and smoked paprika 8 – Seemingly under seasoned, a second spoonful of soup with some of the ham combined to hit the perfect salt tone for me. After three tastes, we all paused simultaneously to say to each other that the warmth of the paprika was just right and how much we liked this soup.
Blood orange intermezzo – Before the main course came out, our waiter placed a tower of organic blood oranges on the table for us to help ourselves as a palate refresher. I managed to pull out three oranges from the bottom rows, Jenga-style, without toppling the rest.
Then the main dishes.
Roasted leg of lamb with couscous, green beans and chermoula 18 – Beautiful, medium-rare slabs of lamb rubbed with North African spices, expertly cooked green beans. Most of this went home with me and I enjoyed it more the next day when the spicing became more intense.
Butternut squash bastilla with rainbow chard, citron raita and roasted chestnut salsa 16 – Very crunchy and light phyllo encasing sweet and buttery mashed winter squash and greens, complicated with the two sauces. Ralph asked Sheryl if she could reverse-engineer this dish to make it for him at home.
Sauteed striped bass with Ethiopian mixed vegetable alicha and roasted chestnut salsa 18 – My favorite of the three mains. Large filets of striped bass as fresh and on point as a top Cantonese chef would produce combined with exotically spiced collard greens and root vegetables and punctuated with sweet, savory chestnuts. Each mouthful showed a different side of the composition. This sounds chaotic, but even with so much on the plate, the fish itself was always the leading role with the other elements as supporting cast adding flavor and nuance.
Chocolate decadence with Meyer lemon whipped cream and hibiscus sauce 8 – Maybe a cliché, but despite having eaten too much, I couldn’t help but finish my luscious chocolate dessert (leaving behind the hard blueberries). Again, a confident hand with introducing acidic elements to balance sweeter and/or rich components. I ordered the Radio Africa chai to enjoy with the dessert course.
Not knowing the wine list here, I had brought the 2001 Joseph Swan Vineyards "Frati Vineyard" Russian River Valley Zinfandel. The lively acid balance of this wine paired well with everything. It really sang with the lamb and the butternut squash. While I didn’t study the list in depth, it’s small but well-chosen with some interesting whites and lighter reds. Nearly all the bottles were less than $35 and the stemware was better than average.
We had very good service with our server checking back several times to make sure things were not too spicy for the “elders”. Chef Eskender Aseged brought out a couple of the dishes himself and we had a chance to chat with him when things slowed down. The DJ’s sets spanning African rhythms in the new and old world from ancient to contemporary added so much to top off a wonderful evening. At one point we were joking about asking the DJ to play some Sinatra. We must have been turned in that direction, causing our hostess to run over to ask if the music was too loud. Sheryl half-jokingly said, “Too loud? Because you think we’re so OLD!” But this gave us a chance to put in our Frank Sinatra request and the DJ managed to slide in a song seamlessly.
Just a week later, my friends were mightily impressed that they’d been ahead of the curve when this NY Times article on Radio Africa and other Bay Area pop-up restaurants came out.
We had a lovely time and felt we got a lot for the money. While the extra attention wasn’t really necessary for our party, I wouldn’t hesitate to bring seniors here, the staff will take good care of them. Well, maybe they’d need to turn the music down a notch.
Joseph Swan Vineyards
2916 Laguna Rd, Forestville, CA 95436
1890 Bryant St, San Francisco, CA 94110
Radio Africa & Kitchen
480 Third St, San Francisco, CA