Rafiki Bistro

A neighborhood bistro for Cambridge's crunchy side
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  September 23, 2010
2.0 2.0 Stars

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DOMESTICATED: There’s not much wild about these wild boar chops, but they make good eating as you listen to the truly spectacular jazz soundtrack.

We'll get to the "socially responsible" cuisine, the organic rum and vodka drinks, and the Whole Foods mix of health and gourmet at this bistro, which is remarkably relaxed for all that right thinking. But first, a word about the music.

Someone here has found the most inspiring collection of '50s jazz records, so great that at times it actually distracted this music-loving critic from his appointed rounds. Miles Davis's classic "So What" from Kind of Blue everyone knows. The early Sonny Rollins is too little known today, but would still have been a footnote. But when the unmistakable piano of Art Tatum started racing around the virtuoso clarinet of the young Buddy DeFranco in a song from their great and only session of 1956 — that was impressive. To hear this music in a bar-restaurant was the equivalent of going to a jazz club and discovering that Jacques Pepin and Ferran Adria were in the kitchen, and Robert Parker was picking all the wines. (The proof — Art Tatum Group Masterpieces, Volume 7 — is on iTunes.)

Back to the food. We started with crusty sourdough bread with sweet butter. Our best appetizer was a special on meatballs ($8.95). This may not sound special — all the gastropubs are putting out meatballs as an appetizer. But I'm finding them all delightful, even at three bucks a pop (and it's a big pop — the size is up to near-lacrosse-ball). These are Italian with cheese and salt and microgreens on top. It's amazing what you can do with a mixture of conventional and organic products. Rafiki also scores with vegan chili served as soup of the day ($4.99). Despite evident tomato and green bell pepper, this chili brings out the dry spices — chili, cumin, maybe oregano — without getting to the sweetness of spaghetti sauce. Enjoyed the bowl, didn't miss the meat, didn't miss the cheese.

Arugula salad ($8.95) had the usual mix-ins of goat cheese, bits of golden beet, and almonds, and a sweet dressing that was complementary with the bitter greens. Caesar salad ($8.95) likewise was competent-plus, with pickled white anchovies and a no-egg, buttermilk-style dressing. Less distinctive were Thai stuffed chicken wings with "Fred sauce" ($8.95). The real Thai method is to pull back the skin around both segments of a chicken wing, making a stuffed object almost the weight of a sausage, with the wing tip as an identifier. Here the stuffing is less distinctive, and only in the two-bone segment. The good news is that now the wing tip is a handle, and the portion is six wings. The bad news is that Fred's sauce is not a worthy tribute to whoever spent the time stuffing all those little wing segments — even if that was Fred himself. Shrimp on rosemary skewers ($10.95) are pretty but the flavors are barely affected by the herbal skewers, and grilled shrimp are what they are.

My favorite entrée was "Herb And Garlic Crusted Roasted Free-Range Chicken" ($17.95), even without so much crust. It was a boned breast plus wing, yet juicy throughout, with real mashed potatoes and broccolini.

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