Enjoy tasty Ethiopian fare, with or without music, at Rasselas

Beth Laberge/Special to the S.F. ExaminerMelting pot: Deep South and Ethiopian flavors combine beautifully in the sauteed catfish with scallions

On the block that contains State Bird Provisions, did you know there are some shops, even other restaurants? Rack your brain and try to remember what’s nearby: “Well, I think there’s a Subway, and a shop that sells hats, and um, maybe a big patch of dirt?”

I get it. This year’s runaway culinary darling has such an outsized presence that it practically obscures anything within visual range.

But from the doorway of State Bird, where you’ve just been told the wait time is eight hours, you can cast your eyes on a fine alternative for dinner.

Rasselas is a name that pops up on election nights, where local politicos can be found toasting their wins (or nursing their wounds). It’s also one of Fillmore Street’s now-dwindling music destinations, an enduring hotspot for nightly live jazz.

If you arrive before the night’s live sets, it can feel a little barren. I felt like an oaf who showed up early to the party; my distracted, inattentive server heightened the sense I wasn’t supposed to be there.

But it’s a trade-off. Arrive early and you can enjoy dinner without raising your voice. Rasselas is loud when it’s lively.

Rasselas’ menu may look a little familiar to anyone who’s eaten at the nearby Sheba’s Piano Lounge. That’s no accident. Although the places have different owners and chefs, their menus were designed by the same fusion-minded craftsman.

The foundation is traditional Ethiopian standbys, wats and kitfos served with stacks of injera, rolled tight like Persian rugs.

The rest of the menu is like Africanized bar food, taking comfort staples — drummettes, meatballs and sliders, oh my — and zapping them with Ethiopian spices.

The unadulterated classics brooked no complaints. Tibs wat, tender cubes of beef awash in a blood-red berbere sauce, were bookended with cooling mounds of red and yellow lentil mash.

Yebeg alecha, a typically mellow lamb stew, teased my tongue with different spice notes in each bite: turmeric, cardamom, a light touch of garlic.

Flavors of the Deep South and Ethiopia combined in the catfish, with sweet honey wine and ginger suffusing every morsel.

The meatballs glistened in a zesty mitmita marinade, as if Swedish meatball gravy had tussled with some bird’s eye chili peppers.

Sambusas typically resemble their Indian cousin, samosas, but at Rasselas they looked more like cigar-wide egg rolls, with light, thin phyllo dough wraps. The crab and the lentil versions were equally enticing, served with a dish of cilantro-chile dipping sauce.

There were moments where the cross-culture mashups foundered.

The fish sliders, whitefish filets served on crummy little buns with berbere-infused “ranch” sauce, lettuce and cheese, veered close to my Fishwich flavor memories.

And the drunken chicken, so named because of tequila in the marinade, was a tough, goopy little number.

But hey, I’ve had a couple of stinkers at State Bird Provisions. Dining out is a risky business, no?

Also, Rasselas features a roaring fireplace, high on my list of “features to warm the troubled soul.” As you ponder cozy winter date spots where you don’t have to camp out overnight for reservations, you could do much worse.

FeaturesFood & DrinkFood and WineLocalRasselas Jazz Club and RestaurantSan Francisco

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