Some diners will steer clear of any Bayview restaurant, without knowing (or wanting to know) the details. And I’m sure Eskender Aseged was well aware of that risk when he planted his flag deep in the heart of Third Street.
Aseged was one of The City’s first pop-up chefs, haphazardly feeding thousands of San Franciscans in cafes and Mission backyards. So when his brick and mortar opened in Bayview this spring, he had a built-in fan base, and plenty of hype to go with it.
But like many new developments in that oft-maligned ’hood, Radio Africa & Kitchen quickly fell off the radar. After lots of chatter during the first month or two, I stopped hearing anything at all.
I’ll leave you to speculate on why that happened; just let me suggest it’s not a place you should overlook. Aseged is serving up some of the most interesting food I’ve tried in months, Afri-Cali cuisine that manages to taste familiar and extraordinary all at once.
On face, an albacore appetizer followed a salad niçoise template: seared tuna, green olives and finely chopped hard-boiled eggs. But the addition of some arugula and berbere spices gave peppery complexity to the hotel standby.
In the mushroom starter, Aseged coupled soft, garlicky cremini and shitakes with snap peas on little crostini. It could have just been a pleasant hors d’oeuvre, something you might nibble on at a springtime Sonoma wedding.
But with the addition of mitmita (a chili-rich Ethiopian spice blend) yogurt, this staid appetizer was tinged with heat and a taste of the exotic.
And a juicy saffroned prawn opener with almonds and green beans playfully made use of shiso, a spice not native to the African subcontinent.
Aseged is a whimsy-prone, free-form chef and this was a typical Radio Africa conceit. He toys with tradition, makes ample use of flavoring exotica (i.e., dried limes, new crop prunes), and manages to infuse every dish with his enthusiasm.
Slow-cooked barramundi bore a nutty sprinkle of pistachios and notes of sweet, roasted Roma tomatoes.
Chicken and basa jambalaya (Aseged chuckles that he’s never had real jambalaya, but thought it would be a neighborhood crowd-pleaser) skipped the sausage and Cajun flavors, subbing in okra, kale and fragrant, cardamom-spiced basmati rice.
The meat in the oxtail tagine was redolent of cinnamon and citrus, smartly plated with couscous, Swiss chard and winy, aromatic dried prunes. I cleaned my plate of every sweet and savory morsel.
A lamb-on-lamb pairing — grilled lamb leg with oven-roasted lamb shoulder alicha — was neither too meaty, gamy or tough. Similarly to the tagine, couscous played a strong supporting role.
Also be sure to try Aseged’s rotating “Fantasy,” an entree of multiple vegetarian small plates. My favorite elements included a gingery carrot, potato and cauliflower puree, and an eggplant caviar made with heirloom tomatoes.
When you walk into Radio Africa & Kitchen, the server disconcertingly greets you with “Do you have a voucher?” They’re talking about a Groupon-style deal, which is apparently how Aseged has been luring in diners from outside Bayview.
I suppose some folks need an added incentive to travel beyond their neighborhood (or comfort zone). But if you’re willing to trek to Outerlands or Serpentine, why not Radio Africa & Kitchen? Aseged’s food should be more than enough motivation.