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Radio Africa and Kitchen is described by its Web site as a "nomadic" restaurant, but if it has anything like a home, it's Coffee Bar, the Multimedia Gulch spot kitty-corner from Circolo. This juxtaposition isn't as unlikely as it seems. Although the first thing you smell when you step into Radio Africa is Coffee Bar's coffee, the smell reminds you that coffee is native to the highlands of east Africa and Radio Africa's food is east African in influence.
The maestro of the project is Eskender Aseged. In the autumn of 2004, having cooked professionally in Bay Area restaurants for two decades, he began Radio Africa on a small scale in his own home, serving dinners that reflected the cuisine of his native Ethiopia to groups of 15 or 20 people. Today, more than four years later, the heart of the drill remains much the same: inventive and elegant cooking that emphasizes healthfulness and carefully chosen ingredients in an atmosphere of (sometimes raucous) festivity.
Despite the arresting name, Radio Africa and Kitchen is several steps removed from Africa. It doesn't even much resemble the Ethiopian restaurants you find along Divisadero Street in the Western Addition. Coffee Bar, as a locale, is a redoubt of pure Mission District monied hipsterdom: a vault of brick, concrete, and stainless steel, with industrial-style lighting, a gigantic, heavy door, and a large mezzanine.
On that mezzanine you will find the flickering light of votive candles, for a monastery effect. There are also big tables for big parties, along with a dining counter overlooking the bar. The Wi-Fi connection must be especially good at the counter, because it seems to attract diners with laptops, who sit there with plates of food while gazing into glowing screens like hardworking controllers at NASA's Johnson Space Center, gobbling some takeout while maintaining radio contact during a space walk.
I do wonder about the etiquette of peering at a laptop, or into a handheld, while having dinner, especially when the food is as good as Radio Africa's. Much as I love the traditional way of presenting the highly spiced dishes of Ethiopia and Eritrea family-style, on mats of injera I was delighted to find some of the flavors of east Africa handled in a different way. They've been passed through a California filter, in a sense. Also I was pleased to find meat de-emphasized, though I like meat. If you've been to one of the old-line places, you've probably noticed the prominence of beef. Radio Africa favors seafood and chicken instead, and many of the best dishes have no flesh at all.
We were particularly impressed by a green-bean salad ($6) really an arugula salad with green beans, slivered almonds, dabs of notably creamy goat cheese, and long fingers of white, faintly blushing radish bound together with a simple vinaigrette. A salad like this one reminds us that there is an art to salad-making, particularly in winter, when not only is matériel in short supply but the human response to greens and uncooked vegetables is at its most reluctant and in need of coaxing.
Edamame hummus ($6) was very much like the usual chickpea kind, except with a faint sheen of green. The hummus was dressed with argan oil, which is derived from the pits of a fruit tree native to Morocco and is thought to have many health benefits similar to those of olive oil. For dipping, the kitchen offered rounds of Tartine sourdough baguette instead of the usual pita bread or lavash.
Were the mushroom crostini ($6) mounted on rounds of toasted Tartine bread? The menu did not give the bread's provenance, and Tartine would be a reasonable guess, but the question was mostly mooted by the tastiness of the topping: a coarse purée of brown mushrooms seasoned with berbere (an Ethiopian form of chili powder) and swabbed onto the toasts along with bits of basil and shreds of manchego cheese, for a hint of tang.
Seared Maine sea scallops ($6) came embedded in a granular purée of cauliflower (about the consistency of riced potatoes) that had been stewed alicha-style. Scatterings of minced chive helped this plate avert a complete white-out, as did the nice crusting on the scallops themselves, which can be overpoweringly rich and sweet but weren't here.
Usually a special vegetarian plate makes me suspicious, but Radio Africa's fantasy ($16) was a small ensemble masterpiece. The dramatis personae included lentils in two guises (green were mashed into something like dal; beluga remained whole), an expertly seasoned eggplant caviar, a wintry tagine of fennel and chard spooned over a foundation of couscous, and (also charmingly wintry) a chestnut salsa to bind the players into a whole of still-discernible parts.
The fantasy was so good that the menu's premier item, a chunk of true Alaskan cod ($20), crusted with flaps of artichoke heart and seated on a low hill of couscous in saffron broth, slightly paled by comparison. We devoured it nonetheless, while noisy birthday parties unfolded at spacious tables on either side of us.
As befits the abbreviated menu, dessert is typically limited to a single possibility, such as vanilla ice cream ($6) organic, in two scoops with a couple of fabulously intense lemon cookies, a few blueberries, and a puddling of chocolate sauce, the last two items combining in a strange harmony as well as providing a wealth of antioxidants and going well with coffee, which not surprising given the circumstances is available. Wine and beer too.
RADIO AFRICA AND KITCHEN AT COFFEE BAR
Dinner: Thurs.Fri., 6:3010 p.m.
1890 Bryant, SF
Beer and wine