Hands-on local, organic

(Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Kathleen Burge
Globe Correspondent / August 18, 2010

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The name sounds exotic, and came from a transformative trip halfway around the world. But Rafiki Bistro hopes to make a name for itself by serving food grown nearby. The restaurant that opened in the Forest Cafe’s old space on Mass. Ave. between Harvard and Porter squares is the full-meal version of the Clear Conscience Cafe, the Central Square coffeehouse that opened in 2007.

At Rafiki, where the interior was renovated with secondhand, refurbished furniture, the food and drinks are organic when possible, says co-owner Daniel Goldstein, who opened Rafiki with business partner Jack Kutner. The rhetoric is a little more toned down at Rafiki than at Clear Conscience, whose website includes a quote about coffee from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu. Although the food menu at Rafiki doesn’t generally specify which ingredients are organic, the cocktail menu is more explicit, listing organic vodka and rum.

On our first visit, Rafiki feels like a restaurant still getting its bearings. When we order lemonade, our waitress seems dubious. She goes to check and a few minutes later, she slips out the front door saying, “I’ve got to get some lemonade.’’ She reappears cradling two half-gallons of Newman’s Own. An appetizer of warm blue cheese and bread (pictured, $8.95), with an assortment of unexpected add-ins, including dried cranberries and hot pepper, is surprisingly good. Roasted wild mussels ($7.95) are tender in a broth fragrant with ginger and garlic.

That first night, a margherita pizza ($9.95) arrives on a wooden board with a too-chewy crust that soon turns soggy beneath an excess of mozzarella. On our second visit, the margherita is better at first, but the crust still turns soggy after a bit.

A pizza special, with figs, sage, and Taleggio cheese, is quite good — although we would have preferred fresh figs — and holds up much better. The eggplant tower ($14.95) is more like a skyscraper, and in the peak of summer, the eggplants and tomatoes shine, though they’re a little overpowered by mozzarella. Pan-seared wild mushroom ravioli ($15.95) is another favorite, packed with mushrooms, asparagus, and artichokes.

The prices are lower than at Temple Bar, just down the street. Other than a Wolf Ranch steak, none of Rafiki’s dinner entrees exceed $20, and burgers and pizza are more budget-friendly choices. Rafiki, which means “friend’’ in Swahili, culled from a trip by the business partners and co-owners of the restaurant to Kenya and Tanzania, is trying to do a lot: weekday breakfast, weekend brunch, lunch, and dinner. To pull it all off, they’ll need a few more friends.

RAFIKI BISTRO 1682 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, 617-661-7810, All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Lunch $5.49-$10.95. Dinner entrees $8.95-$28.95. Hours Mon-Wed 7 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m.; Thu-Fri 7 a.m.- 3 p.m., 5-11:30 p.m.; Sat 8 a.m.- 3 p.m., 5-11:30 p.m.; Sun 8 a.m.- 3 p.m., 5-10 p.m.

Liquor Full bar.

May we suggest Warm Great Hill blue cheese, roasted wild mussels, mushroom ravioli, fig and sage pizza, eggplant tower.