My Dinner With Bestor: A tasty evening with Utah’s piano man Kurt Bestor hits all the right notes. 

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Tucked into an industrial area on South Redwood Road, African Market and Restaurant might not seem especially inviting from the outside. But once one is ensconced within, there’s a genuine warmth and hospitality that’s all too rare in restaurants. I’d visited the African eatery previously on my own, and thought it would fun to return with some friends—including musician/composer Kurt Bestor and his wife Petrina. Kurt was born in Wisconsin but raised mostly here in Utah. Petrina is originally from Kenya, where her family operates Royal African Safaris, leading game-viewing and scientific safaris throughout the continent. n

My only direct contact with African cuisine was in North Africa, in Morocco, and indirectly via eating in Ethiopian restaurants in New York City and Washington, D.C., so my knowledge was limited. But the Swahili-speaking Petrina was able to help us navigate the African Restaurant menu, filled with exotic sounding dishes like ashaakiltii, misira, shiro, handaanqoo, waaddii and raafuu. Thankfully, each term is also translated on the menu for customers like me. I took one look at the low, low prices and thought, “This is gonna be fun!”

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Our hostess for the evening was an Ethiopian woman named Bulane, who’s also chef/owner/server. She does everything, and does it remarkably well. She brought drink glasses and water as we fumbled our way through the menu, finally deciding to order a bevy of combination plates permitting us to taste a little of everything. As I mentioned already, prices at African Restaurant are so low you might as well go whole hog—or goat. As the six of us ordered extensively from the menu, Bulane used no paper or pen to write down the orders. She simply remembered them. Impressive.

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There are a number of vegetarian dishes on the African Restaurant menu, and a good way to sample them is to order the vegetarian combo plate called Wal-Maka ($7.75), which includes every vegetarian item available. That night, there were five different offerings. They included raafuu (collard greens cooked with onions, green peppers, garlic and ginger), dimaa (red beets and potatoes simmered in broth and herbs), and a yummy mélange of carrots and cabbage called ashaakiltii, with the veggies sautéed with herbs and a spice called qimamii. There was also a zippy serving of kochee misira (lentils cooked with berbere paste, garlic, ginger and Serrano peppers).

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Meals come served on large disks of East African-style flat bread called budenaa. Made from taafii flour, it is very similar to the ingeera served at many Ethiopian restaurants. But here’s the kicker: The budenaa is the only dining utensil you get. As in East Africa, food is eaten by hand (preferably only the right one), tearing off pieces of budenaa to scoop the food up with.

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“It’s a bit like a ‘mancake,’ actually,” said Kurt referring to the budenaa. “A what?” I asked.

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It turns out that Kurt likes to improvise in the kitchen as well as at the keyboard. “My own style of cooking is more like jazz,” he said. “I like when I can look at a dish and appreciate its balance—its darks and lights, like highs and lows in music.”

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I could tell Kurt was going all John Tesh-y on me, and reined him back in. “But what the hell are ‘mancakes?’” I asked again.

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Well, you see, Kurt keeps in shape with weights at the gym, so he eats a lot of protein-rich foods, including ‘mancakes.’ “They’re sort of like pancakes,” says Kurt, “but I make them with cooked oatmeal, eggs and protein powder. Mix it all together, and you get one big freakin’ mancake! Then I drizzle diabetic syrup on top.”

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“What’s diabetic syrup?” our friend John inquired. “I don’t know what it’s made of,” said Kurt. “It’s nasty … some kind of chemistry experiment.”

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Sufficiently repelled by the notion of ‘mancakes,’ I turned back to my own dish, a combo plate consisting of two meat entrees and five veggies ($9.95). “This is a very musical-looking deal,” said Kurt about our exotic platters of food. “Very colorful!”

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And he’s correct. There are bright red beets, canary yellow potatoes and cabbage, forest-green collard greens, lemon-colored split peas and snow-white Feta-like cheese. My kochee foanii was brownish-red: small, tender cubes of beef stewed in a mild berbere (red pepper and spices) sauce with onions and ginger. It’s similar to Indian curry, whereas the waaddii seemed like it could have originated in Greece (beef cubes sautéed in oil and onions and flavored with rosemary and berbere). Eating the delicious waaddii and kochee foanii with the budenaa gave me an excuse to lick my fingers.
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As the evening drew to a satiated close, I wondered what to do with all the leftovers. Petrina mentioned Kurt’s “mega-omelets.” Seemed like everything in Bestor’s culinary universe is supersize. “He makes mega-omelets from Sawadee leftovers,” she informed. “Yeah,” said Kurt, “I don’t to the typical guy thing and just add cheese.” Nope, Kurt makes mega-omelets from Sawadee leftovers like pad Thai and panang curry. And the following morning, omelets at the Bestors would have a distinctly East African flair.

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When I asked if Kurt and Petrina considered themselves foodies, Kurt replied: “We’re foodies, but not food snobs. I appreciate creativity in any form. Like in music, the composition of a meal is all about balance; you can’t have too much of one thing and not enough of another. The meal tonight was wonderfully balanced.”

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I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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Kurt Bestor will present his 20th annual Christmas Concerts at Abravanel Hall Dec. 10-13. For tickets, visit ArtTix.org or phone 355-ARTS.

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AFRICAN MARKET & RESTAURANT
n1878 S. Redwood Rd., 978-9673, Lunch & Dinner daily

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