Home > Food > West Seattle Living: Pan Africa Grill Does Everything Wrong

West Seattle Living: Pan Africa Grill Does Everything Wrong

Perhaps I am partially to blame.

When I first heard the Pan Africa Grill was opening in our neighborhood last fall, I was instantly interested. I like Ethiopian food, which was apparently a large part of the venture’s core offerings. While Seattle has a fair number of options for Ethiopian and east African dining, I’m always happy to have a west Seattle entry of favorite cuisines. One of the effects of living here seems to be that if I don’t have to cross the bridge, leaving the neighborhood, I’d just as soon keep it local.

I’m sure it’s part of some larger personality flaw.

Anyhow, as far as I knew, this would be the first option for Ethiopian nearby, so it was going on a list of places to try.

And there it stayed for a while.

Then came the season premiere of “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” which took place in Mozambique. Was a pretty great and interesting episode aside from the food content, to be honest, but all I could think about was how much Bourdain seemed to be enjoying eating something called “Piri Piri Chicken.” Granted, he was doing so accompanied by a rather large bottle of beer at a table near a very sunny beach.

A consultation with the Google revealed to me that I wouldn’t need leave the neighborhood to get a taste of the chicken, as it was listed dead-center on the menu of none other than Pan Africa Grill.

Though, it being Seattle, large beer at a sunny beach-side table…take more than Google to find that (sorry Sergey and other rich dude whose name I forget because it’s not Sergey).

So it was that discussions of dinner plans for a Tuesday night quickly went to “maybe this is a good time to try Pan Africa Grill.” The Missus was clearly trying to keep me from making a mess in the kitchen more than she was trying to indulge my desire for the promise of spectacularly spicy and tangy chicken, but that’s okay, isn’t it?

The only slight objection I raised is that Owen hadn’t been in bed by his stated bed-time in several successive nights and that we’d run the risk of extending the streak by dining out. Wasn’t a strenuous objection, rather a heading-off of the suggestion we make a shopping run after dinner to get a few things.

Shopping is not dessert.

Despite concerns about bed times, we didn’t manage to enter Pan Africa Grill’s front door until 6:50. It happens, especially with the obstacles the city continually puts in front of anyone trying to get to the westside from Seattle (my oh my, the bleeding construction never ends…)

No quick greeting at the front door. It happens, especially at smaller, indie joints on off nights.

The woman who seemed to be arranging tables and carrying menus passed us a few times, but didn’t bother to acknowledge she saw us waiting to be acknowledged. This…probably shouldn’t happen. Hospitality usually opens with a greeting of some sort. Like it or not, once you’ve opened a restaurant, you’re in the hospitality business to some degree.

Eventually we were led to a table. The length of the wait wasn’t really that notable. Or, it wouldn’t have been except for the lack of a greeting.

Now, my son is just over two years old. You wouldn’t confuse him, height-wise, for someone old enough to drive. Despite this, we were taken to a table with four adult-sized chairs and two adult menus, and the woman quickly moved along. In almost all our dining experiences to date, this would be because she was going to fetch a high chair, though, usually, we’ll be asked whether we’d prefer a high chair or booster seat.

After far too many minutes, however, with no return on behalf of our hostess, I decided to strike out on my own in search of an appropriate seat for my son.

I went toward the back of the restaurant, which opens into a big, bright room that seemed like it would be a lovely space in which to have dinner. Unfortunately, there was some sort of cooking class being conducted in that room, which I quickly got the impression I had interrupted. So, back to the dark, narrower part of the restaurant where the small number of diners in the house were sequestered.

Having seen the back room, it became more obvious how dark and unappealing that particular area of the building was by comparison. Also, due to the hallway that connected to the kitchen, the smells from the kitchen seemed to be drafting directly to us. This might be okay in some cases, but the aroma was overwhelmingly of onion. It was not pleasant.

After yet another too long period of time, I managed to catch the hostess (I’m just calling her that for sake of convenience. She seemed to be the catch-all front-of-house person. And by “the,” I do mean “only.”) to ask whether we might get a high chair.

“We only have one and it is being used.”

Booster seat?

“No. We don’t have any.”

Some will have already dismissed this along the lines of “people with kids expect the world to cater to them” which is some weird default thing thrown out by some people without kids who seem to resent that people with kids want to still take part in things rather than limit our public appearances to places catering specifically to children.

To those, I offer only something like, “Go fuck yourself.”

I smiled, chuckled, and offered that it was “no big deal” and that we would “find a way to make it work.”

Should it matter that, at some point over the next hour-and-change we waited for any sign of our food to be arriving, The Missus took Owen to wash his hands, partly to distract him from the fact he’d been sitting mostly still for the better part of an hour, and discovered that the restaurant did have booster seats just sitting unused on a shelf?  I don’t actually believe we were told they didn’t have any as part of a very Seattle-like passive-aggressive strike at people who would dare bring a child into what is clearly not a child-friendly restaurant, but…what is the remaining explanation? She doesn’t know what a booster seat is?!

Still…I choose to believe it was innocent.

No kids menu here, by the way, and no help from the hostess as to what might make a suitable item for a child. Of course, asking for food for a child makes most people think you’re looking for their closest thing to chicken fingers, pizza, or a grilled cheese, so it maybe is again my fault that the woman suggested plantain chips.

We were getting those anyway. We added a chicken sambusa to the appetizer order and figured we’d share some of our entree items with Owen.

Well, I didn’t think I’d be able to give him any of the Piri Piri Chicken or even the Harissa Mac & Cheese, but probably some of my Cilantro Mashed Coconut Potatoes. The Missus ordered Chicken Doro Wott which came with “injera,” which we love and figure to be the thing Owen could eat, if nothing else.

The appetizers came out in a reasonable amount of time. We all enjoyed the plantain chips. Owen didn’t like the sambusa as much, but…he’s two; what does he know? It was good.

And then…just a long, long wait.

Not a long, long wait peppered by frequent updates on what was taking so long or how much longer it would be. Nor with offers of more appetizers while our food was spectacularly delayed. In fact, I don’t remember seeing the hostess/server/catch-all at our table other than for collecting the dishes from the entrees.

Nothing when I walked by her on the way out the door to run up and down the block with Owen to get him some Owen time doing Owen things which does not really include sitting still at a table waiting for food to appear. Nothing when I came back 15 minutes later, at which point I entered the building thinking, for sure, I’d been outside long enough for food to have appeared.

Nothing…just a whole lot of nothing.

We made the decision to have the food packed directly to take home at that point. I let The Missus pay the bill, so I was not present to hear the woman running the show explain that it was only going to be another 5 to 10 minutes (turned out to be nearly 20 from that point, says my wife), nor was I there when my wife was told that we were not being charged for the milk our son had.

Nearly 90 minutes to deliver two menu items and you comp a milk?!

Bare minimum, you should be taking care of the appetizers, but, for a fuck-up of this magnitude, you should be comping the entire bill and probably still be banking that the guest is unlikely to return. Short of that, comp nothing at all because, honestly, it’s a bit insulting. It’s like your acknowledging that you blew it, but can barely be bothered to say you are sorry about it.

And, come to think of it, the word “sorry” never came up. I was finally summoned from my table to the front of the restaurant to collect my food (which, by the way, was still 5 minutes from being ready…I think she wanted the dining room to have one less very unhappy person sulking at their table) and stood there waiting in silence. Man, even a, “Oh, by the way, EVERYONE knows that it takes over an hour to make Piri Piri Chicken so you suck for being mad about this” would have been preferable to the silent treatment. The lack of acknowledgement of a problem(aside from the graciously comped milk) is astonishing.

We got the food home and ate in shifts while trying also to get the boy bathed and in jammies and read his nightly two books. Hence, by the time we actually ate it, it was not as hot as it would have been.

What I remember most from Bourdain’s description of Piri Piri Chicken was, “You notice whenever they put the piri piri sauce on the table, they dole that shit out like it’s pure cocaine. There’s never more than a tiny little bit in there. They don’t trust you with a lot of it…You don’t want to hold onto this spicy chicken and then go take a leak later. That would hurt.”

Hence, I was expecting…no…CRAVING some heat.

What I got was a vaguely spicy half-chicken coated in a sauce that was heavy on the citrus and garlic. The citrus dominated. It was unbalanced. You could call it sloppy.

Same for the mac & cheese offering. Was all harissa up front. Nothing behind it. In fact, I’d challenge anyone to identify anything remotely cheesy about it. I would not be surprised to learn there is no cheese at all in that dish.

The potatoes were a whole mess of bland spiked violently with cilantro. The cilantro was so completely overwhelming that I started to have some sympathy for people who don’t like cilantro. I usually think they’re crazy, but if it delivers to their palate the same taste-shock I got with this…I should be nicer to them.

The Missus found her dish to be too spicy. I tasted it and have to sadly report that it was, indeed, spicier than mine (you know, the one with the chile pepper next to it on the menu). At this point, you just figure…there’s nothing going right in this restaurant. Just nothing. I don’t have one good thing to say about it!

Now, had the food come out in 15 minutes? Hell, in 30? Well, we’d still have been underwhelmed by the food, no doubt, as well as the absence of any personality in the atmosphere of the restaurant, but…that would have been it. We’d have eaten and left underwhelmed, destined to either omit Ethiopian from our dining-out options or accept that we couldn’t do it without crossing a bridge or two.

Learn from our mistake and save yourself an awful dining experience. I know a little place up near Northgate where I took The Missus for her first-ever taste of Ethiopian food. I remember the woman running the show there to be wearing a smile while delivering very good food in a timely manner in a well-lit room that did not smell overwhelmingly of onion. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’d rather sit in rush hour traffic to get there than drive the few miles down the street next time I want to indulge in this cuisine.

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