Here in the thick of First Avenue, amid the global marketplace that is the Pike Place Market, a cafe bronzed in the baking hues of the Sahara is bringing Africa to Seattle. Not just Ethiopian food, a cuisine nearly as familiar to Seattleites these days as Thai, but multifold cuisines from across the continent. Hence the name.
Clearly Ethiopian owner Mulugeta Abate is a man of ambition — a fact that first becomes apparent upon entering Pan Africa, easily one of the most polished African restaurants in town. (Note the sunny table mosaics.)
An exhibit of photos of African people adorns the walls — an AIDS fund-raiser — which soon, Abate says, will also hold shelves of African imports. (For now those shelves, along with some of the deli cases, stand forlornly empty — a visual cue of cafes in the Third World if ever there was one.) He also offers African cooking classes Tuesday nights — look in January for classes on the cuisines of Ghana and Morocco.
Where his ambitions most notably appear, however, is on the menu.
Ethiopian food is highlighted — from doro watt to beef tibs to an array of vegetable dishes — but the list ranges from Senegalese chicken yassa to a chicken sandwich pulsating with the flavors of Morocco to the groundnut stew popular across West Africa. Abate and his mother, Ethiopia Abate, do the cooking; his father, Abate Mulugeta, provides a good deal of the overall feeling of deep hospitality. (When was the last time a waiter bowed to you?) When he's not around, the younger Abate might be at his other gig, managing the restaurant La Louisiana. Like I said: Ambitious.
It's not exactly a dinner spot — like so many Market establishments, Pan Africa closes awkwardly in the middle of dinner hour (6 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday) — and the tables and countertops are more way stations than destinations. One wishes food this glorious could be enjoyed more as an evening out than as a drive-by, with something more festive to drink than 7-Up, Diet Pepsi or mango nectar.
The good news is: Abate's attempting to lengthen the dinner hour and get a liquor license for some of the more interesting African beers. The bad news is: It could take awhile. The best news is: In the meantime, the food's worth it all by itself.
Ethiopian sample platter: First let me say that two diners don't need this much food. Still, to come to Pan Africa and miss either the Ethiopian side of the menu or the lesser-known specialties would be equally tragic. So we nibbled about on this platter as if it were an appetizer, circling the spongy injera bread from dollop to dollop like happy travelers. Best were the spiced green beans and carrots, which appeared alongside several other vegetarian dishes — spinach, a mélange of curried carrots and cabbage called yatakelt wott, and an enchanting stew of yellow split peas. (A vegetarian would be quite content in Ethiopia — or at Pan Africa for that matter, ordering the $7.50 veggie combo.) Nonvegetarians, however, will not quibble with the other wotts on this platter — doro (chicken) or yebeg (lamb), both of which came drenched in the fiery red sauce that is so distinctive to Ethiopian cuisine.
Chicken yassa: Not knowing much about West African fare, I admit I would have pegged this dish Grecian or Lebanese before I would have called it African. The flavors wafting out of the chicken breast, which I am almost swooning now to recall, were lemon and onions, which when mingled with green olives over saffron rice made for a lush and elegantly flavorful plate. The chicken, moist and cooked beautifully, was suffused with a charbroiled smokiness — wonderful with the chickpea side dish and simply dressed wild-green salad beside it. I'll be back again and again for this plate.
Groundnut stew: The best of this ubiquitous dish I've ever tasted, this peanut stew was at once deeply flavored and light as air. Moist chicken appeared with onions, carrots and delicious sweet yam chunks in a nutty gravy, which was simply heavenly over rice.
Itemized bill, meal for two
Ethiopian sample platter $8.00
Chicken yassa $7.50
Groundnut stew $7.50
Kathryn Robinson: firstname.lastname@example.org