CONTINENTAL AFRICAN cuisine has deeply influenced those slow-cooked dishes from the Southern United States—food that can brighten a Portland winter. Really, what could be better on a cold, soggy day than tucking into a warm bowl of jambalaya?
Well, if Afrique Bistro made a few changes, the something better could easily be their fish stew. Much like its Southern US counterparts, the stew is hearty, aggressively spiced, and satisfyingly savory. The large chunks of fish ("market fish" on the menu, tilapia in my case) have a nice blackened flavor to them, and in the thickness of the stew work to create a very comforting and warming dish.
It's one of the better items on the restaurant's brief menu of pan-African plates. There are other dishes that could satisfy, but it seems that the food is crying out for more attention—both from the kitchen and the wait staff.
One of the best things about eating at Afrique Bistro is that while the cuisine is African, the flavors aren't completely unfamiliar to anyone who's eaten French, Creole, or even Indian cuisine. It's an interesting exercise to enjoy a Moroccan-style chicken tagine and follow the threads of flavor across continents—the heavy tones of cinnamon and lighter hints of nutmeg reminiscent of Indian garam masala, and the apricot sweetness mixing with rice to incite recollections of fruit pastries.
However, sitting down for a meal in Afrique Bistro's lovely, comfortable dining room is a lesson in frustration. There is so much potential presented in the food, but few of the dishes really hit the mark. They lack freshness and can often seem overcooked. The frustration comes from the fact that the flavors are so right, but hobbled by carelessness. A perfectly fine lamb moussaka (likely introduced to South Africa in the late 1800s by the Ottoman Empire) is tasty, slightly reminiscent of lasagna, with large layers of savory eggplant acting as a toothy counterpart to ground lamb, tomato, and onions. But, while moist, there is a crumbly, aged quality to the dish, as if it had been refrigerated for a long time and then re-heated to serve. The beef bobotie, a fine savory/sweet casserole, is also flavorful. Unfortunately, it's necessary to wait a good 10 minutes before the dish is cool enough to eat.
Care is lost in presentation as well. Many of the dishes seem simply shoveled onto the plate with little flair. While that's not necessarily a big deal, it does raise eyebrows when charging $15 for an entrée. Even a much more affordable $5 starter of Afrique chicken wings appears a bit shabby. The wings themselves are well prepared—and the spicy, buttery, green chili piri-piri sauce coating them was bright and unique—but the six pieces of chicken were crowded comically onto a too-small, ungarnished plate, plopped unceremoniously on our table by the server.
That same server used a set of long, unwieldy tongs to dish out chicken tagine with all the grace of a bored lunch lady. I'd like to say it was an off day, but service on another visit was just as lax, with a portion of our order being "spaced." In fairness, the dish did eventually make it to the table and was left off the check.
The fact remains, if Afrique Bistro is trying to create an upscale dining experience to showcase what could be excellent African cuisine, they need to step up their game on all fronts. While the side of sweet potatoes may be divine and the fish stew perfect for a winter day, it can all be lost to a careless server blaring Charlie FM, a distracted cook with no eye for aesthetics, and an unjustifiable price-tag—leaving Afrique Bistro a cold-weather refuge-in-waiting.