At Habesha one evening, I couldn't take my eyes away from two young women sipping warm tea at a table in the center of the room. Between them on the...
At Habesha one evening, I couldn’t take my eyes away from two young women sipping warm tea at a table in the center of the room. Between them on the smooth, black tabletop sat a large, round platter of food and a basket of pliant flatbread folded into a triangle like a napkin. One of them tore off a piece of bread, used it to gather a bit of meat from the platter and, stretching an elegant arm across the table, fed the morsel to her dinner companion.
This was, I would come to learn from a note on Habesha’s menu, an example of gursha, an Ethiopian word that means “mouthful.” It refers to the custom of placing food in another’s mouth to show friendship or affection.
Dining Ethiopian style is an unavoidably communal affair, given that the serving platter is also the common plate from which everyone partakes, using scraps of torn bread in place of utensils.
The bread is called injera. Made from a wheatlike grain called teff, it has a pronounced tang, like sourdough only more so. It’s thin, very supple and spongy, which makes it a great picker-upper for wot, the saucy stews that are a mainstay of Ethiopian cuisine.
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Doro wot, a chicken and egg stew, is a great introduction to Ethiopian cooking for those who are new to it. The version here is made with truncated chicken legs so bulbous it’s almost hard to tell the chicken from the hard-boiled eggs. Both are coated with a thick, ruddy sauce rippling with berbere, a complex blend of red chili pepper and other spices that is a prominent ingredient in this vibrant African cuisine.
It is berbere that also gives potency and nuance to vegetarian stews like misser wot, made with red lentil and onion; shiro wot, a mash of ground dried peas, onion, garlic and ginger; and bamia, a red-tinged braise of sliced okra. Turmeric, garlic and ginger flavor yemisir alecha, lentils and green pepper swathed in a yellow sauce that’s reminiscent of a complicated curry.
Order the vegetarian combo and sample all seven vegetarian entrees for just $13. The platter, a lively carousel of flavors and textures, includes all of the above-mentioned along with other, less-spicy offerings: spinach sautéed with garlic and onion, and a medley of cabbage, potatoes, carrot and green beans in a golden, herb-sweetened sauce.
Beef, lamb and seafood entrees round out the menu. Awaze, a paste made of berbere, jolts a tomato and herb sauce that moistens crispy nuggets of white fish in a dish called asa gulash. Tibs refers to cubed meat, the pieces cut small to facilitate eating without a knife. Habesha tibs are morsels of lamb cooked with butter, tomatoes and onions; Sega tibs is a similar dish made with beef tenderloin. Both are milder than the berbere-spiked sauces; in both cases the meat was chewy but not unpleasantly so.
Kitfo is an Ethiopian take on steak tartare. The nearly raw beef is mixed with spiced butter and has a lush texture that is saved from excessive unctuousness by a little heap of mitmita pepper served next to the meat. Dip the injera in the pepper before grabbing some beef, and it cuts the richness like a saber. If you snag too much, a little dry cottage cheese quells the heat.
So do a variety of beverages. Habesha dispenses a full range of spirits from a sexy little mosaic-topped bar fronted by seven seats. Built-in shelves at the far end of the brick-walled room handsomely display a selection of wines. Several are from Ethiopia, including the sweet honey wine called Tej, and a couple of dry, robust reds, Gouder and Dukan, that stand up well to the food’s bolder flavors. You’ll find Ethiopian beers, too, plus juices, sodas, coffee and tea.
I never wanted for dessert because I always filled up on bread, but also because baklava, tapioca, tiramisu and cheesecake just weren’t what I craved after a meal here. Better, I think, to finish with a demitasse of smooth, full-bodied Ethiopian coffee or savor the joys of ginger tea, sweetened to round out the spicy bite of ginger, cinnamon and clove that grows more thrillingly intense with every sip.
If you’ve never tried Ethiopian food, Habesha’s weekday lunch buffet — $7.95 for all you can eat — lets you experiment at little cost. A small steam table holds six entree choices, three with meat and three vegetarian. Don’t mistake the stack of rolled up injera for napkins. Unroll one on your plate and spoon the food on top; take an extra roll to eat with. Forks are supplied, too, which can help novices avoid turmeric-stained fingernails.
Whether you are familiar with Ethiopian fare or adventuring for the first time, Habesha captivates. The attractive room is awash in the diffused amber light from fancifully printed paper shades that dangle from the ceiling. The brick walls are adorned with native art and basketry. Intriguing food, intoxicating smells and gracious service all contribute to a sensual, satisfying dining experience.
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