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By John Birdsall
Rasselas Ethiopian Cuisine & Jazz Club
2801 California (at Divisadero), 567-5010. Open from 5 to 10 p.m. daily, until 11 p.m. weekend evenings. Street parking available. Reachable by the 24 Divisadero and 1 California Muni lines. The restaurant is not wheelchair accessible.
A recent Chron piece on "The Bay Area's Best Dining Deals" described the food at a new Ethiopian restaurant in town as "humble." That got me hungering for good Ethiopian food, and remembering Sheba, the departed queen of Ethiopian eateries -- nothing humble about the food, or the chic, sunny decor, or the amazing woman who presided over it all, and taught so many of us what to look for in good Ethiopian cooking. The latter's name was Netsanet; last I'd seen her, she was hostessing (but not cooking) at Rasselas Ethiopian Cuisine & Jazz Club. When I called for reservations this time, I inquired after her. She was gone, alas, said the person who answered, unable to provide further information. But in any event, our new fellow culinary adventurer, Nick, was eager to sample Ethiopian food, and Mary Ann had eaten it just once (at a restaurant that I'd tried and found wanting), so off we trouped to the outer Western Addition for a taste of kitfo and an earful of jazz.
Gone or not, Netsanet's influence over the Bay Area's rich Ethiopian food scene remains formidable. For several years, her Sheba was the outstanding Ethiopian restaurant in Oakland, a town wealthy in this food genre. Ethiopia is just across the thin blue line of the Red Sea from the historical land of Sheba (Saaba, a one-time region of southwestern Arabia) and Netsanet certainly fit King Solomon's gaga paeans, being black and beautiful, tall and regal, resembling Somalian model Iman. The dishes that came from her kitchen were equally stunning and sensual, made with authentic ingredients (that her mother would send from home) and bursting with complex, vivid flavors that were simultaneously spicier and more refined than the American-adapted versions at other restaurants. And Netsanet herself would circulate among the tables, teaching about the cuisine and its associated customs, educating hundreds of palates.
This was during a low period in the homeland, with famine and political upheaval, when American GIs jokingly dubbed their MRE kits "Meals Rejected by Ethiopians." When the situation eased, Netsanet returned to her country, and Sheba vanished as utterly as its ancient namesake. Its loyalists scattered, loath to settle for less. East Bay residents eventually discovered the Red Sea, in southernmost Oakland, where the food is, at least, authentically fiery. San Franciscans had a harder time of it. After trying the drab dishes at three local Restaurants Rejected by Ethiopians, I found myself silently wailing, "Come back, little Sheba."
A few years later, a pleasant, run-down bohemian bar (called Colonel Mustard's) underwent a transformation: Renamed Rasselas, after the Prince of Abyssinia (the old name for Ethiopia) in Samuel Johnson's 18th-century novel, it was remodeled into a jazz club, and started serving Ethiopian food in a separate dining room next to the nightclub area. And who should reappear to greet its patrons but Netsanet herself, recently returned to the Bay Area. She preferred to serve as the hostess rather than to cook, but Rasselas' chef must at least have come from the same region -- on several visits, the food certainly tasted more like Sheba's than any I'd found elsewhere.
So we went to the Netsanet-less Rasselas with empty bellies and open minds. Turning left inside the nightclub, we descended a step to find a small sunken dining room under a tented ceiling of cream-colored fabric. The tables have burgundy cloths, and the walls display several paintings in Coptic folk-art style, portraying historical events, including one that unsettlingly (given the iconic style) depicts a World War I-era battle, complete with coffins, Red Cross ambulances, and Gatling guns.
Rasselas' menu is brief and efficient, with no appetizers or sweets, just a half-dozen main courses topping out at $10.95 for the labor-intensive "vegetarian combination." The food comes swiftly. Typical of Ethiopian dinners, everything is served on a round platter lined with room-temperature injera, a large, porous pancake that looks like the surface of the moon and soaks up the flavors of all the foods placed on it. (Food scholar Charles Perry has described it as "an edible washcloth.") You'll also receive a basket containing more injera, to use as an eating implement until you've uncovered enough of the palatable platter to switch to it. You tear off a piece and (using just your right hand if you care about good form), scoop up some goodies and -- yum. It's a sensual all-food experience with no cold metal interposing itself between your teeth and the tastes. From the injera's dark color and faint grainy aroma, TJ and I guessed the presence of teff, a dark, coarse (and very nutritious) Ethiopian staple grain. You can buy high-priced packaged teff at health food stores, but it's infernally difficult to work with, requiring Saharan heat to properly ferment and rise. Hence, most local injera is made from regular flour lightened with club soda. Rasselas' features, instead, an ingenious combination of teff, wheat flour, rice flour, and corn flour, which creates a more interesting flavor and pores galore for soaking up juices.