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San Francisco Jazz with Ethiopian Spice
July 14, 2016 -- Two Ethiopian sisters are trying to keep live jazz alive on San Francisco's Fillmore Street, once the swingingest neighborhood west of Chicago.
Netsanet "Net" Alemayehu and her sister and business partner, Israel, showcase jazz groups and performers seven nights a week with no cover charge at the Sheba Piano Lounge, a 10-minute drive from downtown. The lounge also has a creative bar and restaurant.
In a day of spiraling dinner tabs and pricey admissions to live performances, the sisters are holding down the cost of smooth music and authentic food and drink. Net goes home three times a year to shop in the street markets of Addis Ababa. She returns with hundreds of pounds of fragrant Ethiopian spices for the Abyssinian dishes on her menu. No price is higher than $18 and the servings are huge.
"I want to preserve live jazz on the street where it flourished," says Alemayehu, referring to the years when horns wailed, drums throbbed and velvety voices purred in dozens of clubs that dotted a five-block street on Fillmore. Today, only two places remain.
The Sheba Piano Lounge is celebrating its 10th anniversary and the place is packed most nights. She's succeeded without headliners and no cover charge. What's more, Net is old school on reservations. To guarantee a spot for dinner, you dial 415-440-7414 and talk to a human being. No tech-driven rigmarole so popular in San Francisco. Otherwise, walk in early and you'll score a seat or a table. Also, Sheba doesn't have a two-drink minimum. But with no cover and no minimum, you need to order something.
On several recent visits, a young Ethiopian woman was working the hostess stand welcoming customers. She had none of that annoying, hipper-than-thou gatekeeper's attitude.
To the left is a cozy alcove room with three black leather sofas, Craftsman-style lamps and a gas fireplace that blazes nightly. To the right is a community table that seats 12. Behind an ancient-looking wall are tables for two, four or more. This is a restaurant, so seating is arranged for dining, drinking and conversation, not for watching a performance. A 12-stool bar takes up one end of the room.
Sheba opens every day at 5 p.m. and, most of the time, Net and Israel are there greeting and serving. One recent weeknight, the serving staff was down to two including the bartender and they both were scrambling to take and fill orders.
Net realizes that jazz lovers don't want to hear the same sounds seven nights a week. So Monday is open mike night while Tuesday features one of four different solo pianists. Wednesday is a jazz trio. Thursday night is Latin jazz. Friday is blues until 2 a.m. On Saturday, the Robert Stewart Experience plays a regular gig. Sunday usually belongs to the Texas-Louisiana jazz sounds of Bohemian Knuckleboogie.
Sheba is pretty much a stress-free zone. The color scheme is soft, simultaneously warm and cool. It's all quite mellow. But I think it's a little too dark. It's hard to read the menu when the sun goes down.
Chef Alemtu Gimariam, a fellow Ethiopian, runs a small but efficient kitchen. Doro Wat features chicken simmered in a spicy Berbere sauce with garlic, ginger, cardamom and onions. It's served with a boiled egg. Beg Alecha is lamb chunks braised in green pepper, flavored with Ethiopian herb sauce, ginger, rosemary and a touch of jalapeno peppers. Kitfo is Ethiopian steak tartare. The menu also has a half-page of Ethiopian vegetarian dishes.
Appetizers include tastebud-thrilling bourbon-glazed sausage sliders. Garnished with sliced apples and lettuce, it's a reasonable $10. A $9 offering: Crab Sambussa, a pastry shell filled with crab, carrots, apples and cilantro.
Sheba's menu has a page devoted to a glossary of Ethiopian spices. The powerhouse spices that go into the food are also used in the cocktails. Sheba's head bartender, Cody Moehring, is personable, sure-handed and imaginative. His $11 Irish Whiskey Highball is tasty and refreshing. It's a hefty shot of Jameson's, ginger ale and several generous dashes of a housemade Abyssinian bitters fashioned out of a mixture of Ethiopian spices. Moehring won't disclose his recipe.
Some of the "signature cocktails" on the menu sound adventurous. The $10 house namesake drink, Sheba, starts with a tequila infused with fenugreek. There's also grapefruit vinegar, lemon, clover honey and lavender. The Red Sea #3 starts with vodka and adds beet brine, garlic-infused olive oil, sea salt and pickled peppers. It's garnished with a radish for $10.
Moehring knows garlic-infused olive oil doesn't excite everyone's palate. During happy hour, he has a $5 Fireball, $6 Hornitos and Jameson and $7 Fernet Branca, the wretched Italian digestive that twenty-something Americans think is beyond cool.
Net's first decade has won her a loyal following. A San Francisco public relations executive who's a Sheba regular think she's figured out why.
"Sheba is this soothing sanctuary of jazz," says Trisha Clayton. "The warm, candlelit atmosphere hasn't changed over the years. It's like being in a friend's home--if your friend is a musician."
This column is Copyright © 2016 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.