The ancient cuisine of Ethiopia, with its complex flavors and different eating style, has had trouble establishing itself as part of the American dining routine. It’s popular in Washington, DC, and New York City has an increasing number of Ethiopian spots, but it’s generally been slow going hereabouts. Now it’s come to the busy international neighborhood of South Grand Boulevard, whichwe suspect will adopt it. The local Meskerem is an outpost of the New York Meskerem restaurants, so there’s some experience in the background. (The menu is identical; the prices certainly aren’t.)
For an inexpensive place with a feeling of being run by a family, the decor is quite tasteful, the first room with warm yellow walls and a fireplace, the second a dusky gray-blue with baskets on the walls. It’s a pleasant introduction for those who are new to this kind of food.
The basic grain in the Ethiopian kitchen is teff, which, we’re told, is related to rye. It’s used to make a large, spongy pancake called injera that serves as a platter for the rest of the main course -- both a platter and an eating utensil. When the meal is taken according to tradition, a piece of injera is torn off and used with the hands to scoop up the meat and vegetables of the other dishes. It’s rolled into bite-sized pieces and conveyed to the mouth.
This may be a little messy, but the velvety, tangy, slightly sour bread is a perfect combination with the intriguingly spiced food it holds. Besides, Meskerem provides eating utensils for clumsy folks like us, as well as plenty of napkins. The flavors are, as we said, complex, but the dishes feature plenty of onion and garlic, other herbs and spices and varying amounts of peppers, although the food here is not nearly as inflammable as we’ve had in some other Ethiopian spots years ago. A friend who grew up in Ethiopia wandered into Meskeren when we were there and told us that Ethiopian cooking uses more spice than any other European or African culture.
Every culture, as Joe is fond of pointing out, makes some sort of dough-enclosed nibble, either small or large. From Asia’s dumplings to Latin America’s empanadas, cooks have found them a way to transport food from table to mouth (often while walking, of course). The Ethiopian version is sambusas, filled either with beef or lentils. Though they’re fried, the crust isn’t tough, and the filling is moist and full of flavor. It’s not deadly hot, although it carries a slight kick. The real push to heat comes from berbere, a popular Ethiopian pepper sauce, which is served alongside. There are also a couple of salads on the menu, not traditional, as the management freely admits, but a nice riff, especially timatim fitfit, not unlike panzanella, the Italian bread salad. Pieces of injera are joined by tomato, onion and a little green pepper, then dressed with oil and vinegar. The crisp tartness of out-of-season tomatoes actually works well here, reminding one that in Italy, the preferred tomatoes for salad are underripe by our standards. It’s a surprise to the mouth, but it’s very successful.
The Italian influence on Ethiopia goes back many centuries, from the days when the Romans made Africa a territory. The country became independent late in the 19th Century. Haile Selassie was named regent in 1917 and emperor 12 years later. In 1935, Mussolini's forces invaded the country and controlled it until 1941, when the British Army drove them out. The country regained its independence after World War II.
Vegetarians have plenty of possibilities here; the Ethiopian church observes more than 200 meatless days a year. Combination plates are both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, and a vegetarian buddy reported her delight in how tasty she thought things were. The meskerem combo included tibs wat, a spicy beef stew; gomen besaga, an equally spicy dish of ground beef, onions and ginger, some collard greens; green beans cooked with tomatoes and onions; and two lentil dishes, miser alecha, slightly sweet, and miser wat, spicy with pepper. Each was ladled onto the injera, which was on a large platter. Meskerem tibs comes as either lamb or beef, in a ruddy-colored sauce that’s served in a bowl with smaller rounds of injera on the side. The menu says "boneless leg of lamb" and it did seem to be the leg, but there were a couple of large-boned pieces along with medium-sized boneless ones, and as we made our way through the dish, a number of small bits of meat farther down. The flavor, which includes a light hit of rosemary and a bigger hit of pepper, is outstanding. Our only quibble is that there was a lot of fat floating atop the sauce, something that will be off-putting to some.
No desserts yet -- this was a very early visit for us, but we were so pleased with the food, we decided to write about Meskerem -- while the chef develops some. And if the Ethiopian coffee machine is repaired, we’ll investigate it our next visit. As it was, some tea laced with cardamom hit the spot on a chilly, damp night. There’s no license to serve liquor yet, although we did see a table where two of a group raced out buy a bottle of wine and returned before the main courses arrived. In terms of service, we were recognized and that changed things, but it does appear that the staff, while all very accomodating, includes some servers with experience and others who may be gaining their first restaurant experience. Be patient, however. The food’s worth it.
Meskerem Ethiopian Cuisine
3210 S. Grand Blvd.
Lunch & Dinner daily
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair access: Fair