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Radio Africa Kitchen -- report [San Francisco]

Seven of us got together tonight to check out Radio Africa Kitchen. Yes, it's in the Bayview. Yes, it's worth the trip (not bad from downtown on the T).

The menu had five appetizers and four entrees, so we ordered one of everything, and then ordered a second round of our favorites, which turned out to be the mezze plate (with a pale green hummous-like substance not listed on the menu that turned out to be made from fava beans and edamame), the aromatic kufta meatballs, and the lamb two ways (shoulder stewed with dried apricots and slices of smoky roasted leg). I would happily have ordered any of the dishes, though, although the beet salad and the barramundi were a little boring next to the more richly seasoned dishes. Service was warm and friendly -- Chef Eskender himself was acting as a busboy, wiping down tables and filling water glasses, happy and excited finally to have his own restaurant. He said he was planning on opening for lunch in June and to create a restaurant with a comfortable, community feel where people could just walk in, sit down and eat together.

Just about the only thing I didn't like was the fact that when it was more than half full it was noisy, as in leaning across the table saying "What, I can't hear you!" noisy. They have what appear to be baffles but they aren't doing the job!

Pictures: beet salad, tuna kitfo, mushroom souffle, mezze

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  1. Entrees (from left to right lamb, kufta meatballs, "fantasy" of Ethiopian greens and grains, barramundi) and dessert:

    1. yes, agree with everything here.

      2 Replies
      1. re: vulber

        What have you eaten that you liked at Radio Africa?

        I'm curious how much the menu changes week to week. Hoping those meatballs with polenta and asparagus stick around.

        1. re: Windy

          Seriously. The empty casserole dish for the meatballs was next to me, and I kept scraping up little spoonfuls of sauce/polenta. When the chef tried to clear the dish, I literally tugged it out of his hands to scrape out the last few drops.

      2. Do you recall their hours? I was in the area on Tue afternoon and it was closed and evacuated. Is that their close day, or do they only open at ~5 or ... ?

        6 Replies
        1. re: psb

          They're only open for dinner at the moment, although as I said, he's hoping to open for lunch in June (and I got the impression he wanted to be open all day, not closed between lunch and dinner). Annoyingly, I can't find their hours on their website. Why are restaurant websites designed so you can't find the more important information, like when you can go there!

          1. re: Ruth Lafler

            The hours appear to be Tuesday-Saturday, Dinner from 5:30-9:30. You can just barely read this at the bottom of Ruth's menu photo.

            1. re: Dave MP

              Oh yes, I (barely) see now ... your sharpening filters are better than mine.

              I pretty much clicked on every link I could find, getting more and more irritated, before resorting to the Nag Post here. I wonder if it is a deliberate exclusion (fear of commitment) or just flakiness.

              ok tnx.

              1. re: psb

                I wouldn't be so suspicious of their motives. Restaurant websites are almost always designed by external companies; the restaurant often can't easily update the content. And they've only been open a month or so.

                1. re: Windy

                  I am not "suspicious" in the sense that I think it is cagey. I mean to emphasize that it is a deliberate omission because the hours may be in flux and they dont want to advertise longer hours than they are prepared to be open.

                  Obviously ideal would be to have easy to find and accurate hours but if that isnt an option for one reason or another, I suppose it is better to not have any info [well aside from a phone number] than to explicitly say you are open till 11pm when you have decided to scale back to 10pm.

                  What is in a sense more annoying is when the hours actually ARE on the site but a PITA to find.

                  So dont be so suspicious of my motives.

          2. re: psb

            According to their website they are starting lunch service June 2 (11-3). They are also offering a "happy hour" three-course prix fixe for $25 (5:30-7).

          3. Co-sign on everything. What a lovely experience: great food, warm service, beautiful space. My favorite dishes were the saucy meatballs, mezze plate, and "Fantasy" (which was way more interesting than I expected it to be, given the noncommittal description on the menu). The noise level was tough, but I was glad to see the chef had developed a following--the place was packed most of the time we were there.

            I think the chef said he planned to open for brunch or lunch in June. I'm excited to return--the wide windows out to the avenue lend themselves to slow meals on sunny days.

            1. Here's the website. http://radioafricakitchen.com/about.html

              I loved this dinner. As Ruth commented, there wasn't a bad bite.

              DudesinMexico and I ate at the Radio Africa popup a while back, and really liked it, and I'm happy to see Eskender still serving elegant, healthy meals in a setting like this. The menu is his patented Mediterranean-Ethiopian food, especially evidenced by the vegetarian fantasy platter with lentils, okra, and dal so good even I ate it (the edible flowers helped).

              Service was not just friendly but accommodating. We asked about a few ingredients we couldn't place, and each server took the time to either get an answer or the chef. Perhaps more important, service was warm. This is delicious food with good ingredients--but without forgetting the role a restaurant should play for diners. It's too rare to find a San Francisco restaurant this unpretentious and this good at the same time.

              Prices are reasonable and portions are large and suitable for sharing. Since we had 7 people, we ordered one of each appetizer and main course and then ordered seconds of our favorites. I thought the meatballs and pickled carrots were even better the second time.

              Corkage is $10; they brought an ice bucket for my white wine. Total for a very satisfying meal was $36 each including tax and a generous tip.

              1. I was at this meal as well, and had a very nice time!

                I thought the beet salad and fish were disappointing compared to the rest of the meal, and my favorite dish was the meatballs. Our second order of meatballs was even better than the first...perhaps because the sauce had simmered down more in the 30 minutes between these orders. On the Fantasy plate, I really liked the pureed red lentils with berbere and cardamom, and I also really liked the Persian cucumber salad that came with the mushroom souffle. Overall, the meal had lots of interesting spices and flavors, and sampling a bit of everything was a lot of fun.

                For dessert, we ordered the only option: ice cream with berries and spiced chocolate sauce. The chocolate sauce was good (it had cardamom in it), but the dessert overall was a bit lackluster (ice cream tasted commercial, berries were nothing special). It would be nice if they could come up with something better than just a bowl of ice cream w/ berries.

                Like others have mentioned, the noise was tough, but the space is really nice, and it's nice to see that the restaurant is so busy. As always, nice to dine with other hounds.

                Dave MP

                1. I went to Radio Africa a few weeks ago. We found the dishes to be mixed. Some were super good while others just felt normal. The impression we left with was that he is still experimenting and figuring out his voice. The successes came from surprising twists and unsual combinations of african preparations and spices with otherwise familiar dishes. The night we were there there was a dish with homemade injera that was divine. I wish I could remember all that was in it.

                  It's definitely a place to visit again. I'll be keeping my eye on it to see where he takes things. Kudos to Chef Eskender for making Radio Africa a brick and mortar reality!

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: weshoke

                    Yes, the beet salad and the barrimundi dish could be described as normal. Not bad, just not different from what you might find at a dozen other places. The fish was disappointing in that it didn't live up to the description.

                  2. Just got back from here and thought it was great and an excellent value to boot considering the generous entree portion sizes. In addition to the mezze, which we split, I had the cornish game hen tagine and my friend had the (vegan) corn pudding dish. My main quibble was that I would have liked a bit more tartness from the preserved lemons in the tagine; the dish was very good but a bit unusual (it had prunes and apricots flavoring it; aren't those sweet ingredients more typical in non-poultry tagines like lamb?).

                    What I enjoyed most was the depth of flavors. Seems like whenever attempts to California-ize cuisines fall flat, it's because the flavors of the dishes have been hollowed out by leaving out some key stock or seasoning. Aseged manages to adapt these dishes without compromising flavor.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: bigwheel042

                      Excellent. Thanks for the report. And yes, depth of flavors is a fine way to describe his cooking. When we asked, he described so many layers of ingredients. Still quite delicate.

                    2. I haven't been yet, but I noticed that a Groupon-like web site called Gilt City has an offer for a 5-course tasting menu for two for $60. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

                      1. A year+ has passed since Chef Eskender opened the doors of Radio Africa & Kitchen in the Bayview. Three of us, opting for a light dinner with fresh ingredients, met here for dinner last night at six o'clock. Parking was easy and the T-line and MUNI # 54 have stops in front of the restaurant at 4800-3rd Street @ Oakdale.
                        We were perfectly pleased with the hibiscus lemonade, the MEZZE for All $35 and sharing the wild barramundi entree $18, finishing with tea and sharing the dessert $7. We loved every bite and applaud Chef Eskender's talents and skill, composing complex flavors and textures with a light hand.
                        Service is welcoming, cheerful and friendly.

                        Starting with cups of the earthy mushroom soup, crunchy with chopped English peas, leeks and Spring garlic, our appetites were revved for boldness. Next up: the green beans/shrimp with spiced almonds, the smoked trout bacala with harissa/jicama/red cabbage with more bread to sop up every drop of deliciousness. The ahi tuna kitfo with quinoa accompanied the spinach, beets, tangerine salad. Every dish on the Mezze can be a stand alone; I loved the array; the dance of flavors and the contrast of textures. Experience the Mezze, it's a triumph of high notes.
                        I am fascinated by Chef's detailing of each dish, every ingredient adds a nuance; the wild barramundi was perfectly moist and succulent with the young grape leaves, pistachio and alicha of carrot - we were all very happy to have ordered this dish. If this is 'normal', then it's hurrahs for normal.

                        The Happy Hour dinner special offers soup or salad, entree, dessert for $25. The Tasting Menu is $48 pp

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: Cynsa

                          That sounds wonderful, including the special menus. Time to visit and enjoy the spring bounty.

                          1. re: Cynsa

                            glad you had a good meal. I love the tuna kitfo and really like how the chef is developing the menu the longer he is in the space. What was the crowd like when you went? Every time we've been there it hasn't been very full which is sad for a place with such good food.

                            1. re: tjinsf

                              We were the only table at 6 pm on Wednesday evening; by 7:30 pm there were two more tables of 4 and 2.
                              We also loved the ahi kitfo - it's certainly a singular dish to center the starters and pique the palate.

                              Third Street would feel more welcoming if swept of the unsightly wind-blown trash by the restaurant's doors - leaves, wet papers and fast food detritus. Otherwise, Radio Africa is a welcoming haven of hospitality and the complex tapestry of the Chef's talent.

                              We'll return to savor more meals together and hope that this food attracts a loyal following beyond the Valencia corridor and the undeniable salt and fat laden siren call of burgers and fried food.

                              At Radio Africa, we were nurtured, delighted, amused, and satisfied.

                          2. Just a heads up that there's a current Travel Zoo deal for nearly half off (tasting menu for 2 at $55) available here - http://www.travelzoo.com/l/85134401-1...

                            It's been on my list for months so this was a good excuse to finally make a reservation! :)

                            6 Replies
                            1. re: OliverB

                              It's a good deal, but the food is very reasonably priced anyway. Great to try a range of dishes. Looking forward to your report.

                              1. re: Windy

                                I have to be honest and say that I kind of disagree... I found the food entirely underwhelming and not worth the trip. I really didn't feel that it was a destination restaurant at all, nor was it worth the forty minute trek that we made to get there. Both my wife and I found the food to be good, albeit pretty standard fare and for the cost and effort, we could have enjoyed an equally good if not far better dinner closer to home.

                                First, the good: the sweet corn chowder that we started with was possibly the best I've ever had. That and the very simple yet fresh beet salad with chèvre alone would have been enough to satisfy the both of us. Unfortunately, the first course also set the bar pretty high and everything else seemed disappointing in comparisson.

                                We were served a smoked trout pâté with toast, which admittedly I'm not partial to, so I'll save my critique except to note that neither of us found it particularly enjoyable. Our waitress failed to comment upon clearing the uneaten dish.

                                Next we ordered a prawn dish off the a la carte menu to add-on to our fixed-prix. It was a complete misfire and tasted as though the prawns were cooked in a separate pan and simply added to the sauce (which admittedly was quite good - we used our leftover pieces of toast from the pâté to mop it up) upon plating. The chef obviously did not sort out the preparation of this one beforehand; it was extremely bland and flavorless. Anyone of us could have surely done much better.

                                Then came the mezze with roasted lamb. The lamb was deliciously tender and perfectly cooked, but... it was just lamb. There was nothing exceptional or outstanding about it. Had it been in any other location, and at a lower price point (I'll explain!) I would have walked away feeling - "eh, not bad; perhaps we'll give it another chance sometime." But given the 40 minute commute each way... it was just a plate of lamb, lentils, beans and cous cous! We felt like we'd gone completely out of our way for an entirely mediocre experience at what felt like a decent neighborhood restaurant. There was a desert plate too, something with chocolate but I guess the murky description probably says it all - another forgettable course.

                                Now on to the price... we thankfully bought a discounted coupon for half off the 5-course tasting menu. It cost around $55 I believe. We ordered one extra (boring!) dish - the extremely bland and tasteless prawns. We each ordered at least one glass of wine. I might have had two, I forget. With tax and tip, I ended up spending an additional $60 bringing our dinner total to almost $120, not to mention the 80 min. commute and having to stand around waiting 15 min. in the cold for Muni in a pretty dodgy part of town. Perhaps our experience was unique, but we felt it was a complete waste and had we not purchased that coupon, I'd go so far as to say that our meal would have been a borderline ripoff. For the cost and effort, we could have eaten extremely well within our neck of the woods. Heck, we could have enjoyed a great dinner at Nopa or Frances or countless other restaurants with far more proficient kitchens.

                                I also neglected to mention the ambiance of the dining room. Perhaps because the restaurant neglected to offer any.

                                All that said however, I don't want to come across as too harsh because there were many aspects of the meal which were enjoyable. Were it a neighborhood restaurant, I'm sure we'd give it another shot. Had we not spent the hour and a half commuting, I'd say it was a pretty forgettable experience. Unfortunately, ours was more of the "we can scratch this one off for good!" affair. Perhaps we set our expectations too high.

                                1. re: OliverB

                                  "For the cost and effort, we could have eaten extremely well within our neck of the woods. Heck, we could have enjoyed a great dinner at Nopa or Frances or countless other restaurants with far more proficient kitchens. "

                                  Do you really think that five courses each would cost only $55 for two people at those places?

                                  I haven't eaten at Radio Africa since it moved, so I don't have a dog in this hunt. But that seems like hyperbole.

                                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                                    No, of course not but I never said anything about five courses... I just expressed the fact that we could have eaten at these other restaurants for the same cost, and had a far more enjoyable meal. More than half of the courses at Radio Afrika were a waste anyhow. We'd have gotten better milage with an entree, glass of wine and shared desert at a restaurant like Nopa than a full tasting menu (six courses actually because we purchased an additional plate) at R.A.

                                    1. re: OliverB

                                      Two entrees at Frances will run $54. Two entrees + 1 dessert at Nopa might come in at the same $55.

                                      So I guess the corn chowder and the beet salad you said was enough to satisfy the both of you wound up costing you the same. The rest of the food was free. :J

                                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                                        Not quite, Melanie... I spent over $100 for that beet salad and soup, I wouldn't consider the rest of our mediocre food a "bonus". More like an incredibly poor value considering we could have eaten really well at countless other restaurants in the city for the same cost. Two entrees at either Frances or Nopa would have come out to less than I spent on the entire meal, yet we would have had a far more enjoyable dinner. Anyhow this is silly because my issue with the restaurant is not the pricing. It's the uninteresting and rather standard fare that was served, which tasted just fine for the most part, but as I've repeatedly suggested, was certainly not worth the trip out. The combination of effort, time, cost and unfulfilled expectations are what soured me on Radio Africa. It's my own issue really as I think it's a fine enough restaurant, albeit not a place I'd be eager to return to as I found it a bit boring and ordinary, however the idea that it was a destination is what skewed my opinion and is my main point of contention.

                            2. In reviewing the posts in this thread, one of the things that I've noticed people commenting on were the 'depths of flavors'. With the exception of the corn chowder, this was almost entirely absent from our food. I forgot to mention that we were served a grilled white fish with our mezze and lamb. My wife who is mostly a pescatarian, didn't touch this one. I think it may have been snapper. It had a bit of a fishy taste, I suppose. I thought it was okay, but not something I'd recommend anyone to order. As mentioned, the lamb was very good but also very typical of any African/Middle Eastern restaurant which prepares a good lamb dish. The 'depth of flavors' was certainly not present in any of these dishes. I wonder if it's because we did the tasting menu, instead of opting for the a la carte items? Other dishes like the above mentioned injera, jambalaya, etc. sound like they could have been far more interesting. I just don't think that any restaurant in San Francisco with a $100 tasting menu should be serving stuff like commercial grade chocolate ice cream with berries. I realize that the above mentioned fixed-prix is an incredibly reasonable price for 2 people in this city but within context and accounting for many things which were absent from our experience, most of all being memorable and inspired food that makes you want to return! Overall, I found it a poor value for this reason. Perhaps the kitchen was just inconsistent on our visit, but that's also not an excuse. I must admit that the photos posted above look a heck of a lot more interesting than anything we were offered.

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: OliverB

                                Who said they had a $100 tasting menu? Sorry you didn't enjoy your meal. It does sound like expectations were not aligned with the restaurant. Radio Africa isn't Aziza.

                                1. re: Windy

                                  I bought a coupon through Travelzoo or Groupon for half off the regular tasting menu and it came to $55 total. I assume the regular price would have been around the $100 mark. Again, I realize that this is accounting for two people and that it would normally seem like an incredible value, however the overall quality of the meal was not in proportion with what one would come to expect for a fixed-prix degustation menu at this price point, and I also didn't think the portions were all that generous, frankly. I'm not objecting to the price however. I just don't consider it a "value" by any means, nor worth going out of your way for. I would consider Radio Africa a good but not great neighborhood restaurant. Not a destination and certainly not worth purchasing Groupons for and trekking across town for. The overall impression that it left on us was of consistent mediocrity... with one truly knockout corn chowder!

                                  1. re: OliverB

                                    I just went there a couple of days ago with a $59 Groupon worth $100 for their 2-person tasting menu. Perhaps we weren't paying attention, this struck us more as a Californian than African restaurant. Food was excellent, with the baked trout on bread, lamb, and barramundi all standing out; I'm sure they have cooked these dishes a million times. Service was pretty good if not perfect. The wine selection needed work. If not a solid A meal, this was worth at least an A-. Charging a full $100 for the tasting menu might be a slightly tough sell regarding the neighborhood, though it certainly wouldn't be called outrageous.

                                    1. re: vincentlo

                                      Gilt City SF has a 50% off coupon for tasting menu at Radio Africa right now...

                              2. Bumping for updates! My daughter just moved in across the street. She takes what she calls "the train" to work, and says she can tell who is heading there. I am from New York, and don't think it's a "train".

                                Hoping to get there soon, and for D to be a regular, but I guess she wouldn't be living there if she could afford it!.

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: Shrinkrap

                                  Street car to most of us... new light rail line on Third Street.

                                  1. re: Cynsa

                                    That was interesting; thanks. My mother, born and raised in Brooklyn, was a subway fanatic!

                                  2. re: Shrinkrap

                                    You're right, the T "car" is a Muni Metro trolley (light rail), not a train. BART would be a "train" in the New York Sense. My only experience with the food was at the recent SF Street Food Festival, where I had an ahi kitfo which was quite tasty though if it was served witf a slice of French bread instead of the traditional injera.