Sidamo Coffee & Tea

Coffeehouse
$$$$ ($14 and under)
'

Editorial Review

About the Food

At Sidamo Coffee and Tea on the northern edge of Capitol Hill, open for a little more than a month, soothing green walls and African music meld nicely with the vibrant artwork and the smiles of husband-and-wife owners Kenfe Bellay and Yalemzwed Desta.

The two hail from Ethiopia, and the shop is named for a province there known for its coffee. Although they are not from Sidamo, Bellay says, they are typical of most native Ethiopians, who are taught to roast coffee beans at home by their mothers. "That's where I learned the color and those types of things," Bellay says.

Now they roast Ethiopian Harrar and Yirgacheffe beans for use in their shop and for sale by the pound ($9 each). "We are working on different types of African coffees, too," he says. "We want to include Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda -- all organic, and it must be fair trade, and it must be shade grown. There is no compromise on these three."

Desta prepares sandwiches and homemade soups daily. If you're hungry for breakfast, a tasty bet is the ham, egg and cheese on English muffin ($2.99), artfully garnished with fruit. For lunch, try the warm ham and cheese on a round of rosemary focaccia with both American and cheddar cheeses, lettuce and tomato ($5.95). While the roast beef sandwich ($6.95) is described on the menu as featuring lemon-spiked mayonnaise and caramelized onion, it was prepared just like the ham and cheese and was just as satisfying.

The soup of the day ($2.95 a bowl, or $6.95 with a half-sandwich) recently was chicken and vegetable, which didn't sound nearly as exciting as it tasted. The heavily black-peppered broth teemed with chicken chunks, carrots, celery and green pepper.

The couple hosts an Ethiopian coffee ceremony each Sunday at 2 p.m. to remind them of home. "The coffee is roasted right there in front of people in a small pan, and people sit down together and drink from small cups," Bellay says.

--Rina Rapuano (Jan. 10, 2007)

An Ethiopian Blend of Java and Tradition

You're sick of the standard Starbucks. Caribou Coffee just isn't strong enough, and Dunkin' Donuts . . . well, you're looking for something a little hipper. How about a new coffee experience this weekend -- one with a little shot of culture?

Every Sunday at 2, Sidamo Coffee & Tea on H Street NE presents a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Yenu Desta (or her sister Yalemzwed Desta) dresses in traditional Ethiopian garb and lays out a green carpet at the front of the store. She then burns incense and roasts coffee beans over a propane burner on the floor. As she shakes the pot, the beans crackle and turn from a greenish color to a dark, rich brown. The roasting beans give off a burnt smell, not what a Washingtonian coffee drinker might be accustomed to. When the beans are done cooking, Yenu takes them around the shop for everyone to smell close-up.

She then grinds the beans and adds them to boiling water in a brewing pot called a gebena. No sissy percolating here: The boiling stew makes an extra-strong brew.

Everyone in the shop gets a free small cup of the fresh-roasted coffee along with a little popcorn. (The popcorn has no connection to a genuine Ethiopian coffee ceremony.)

Kenfe Bellay owns Sidamo with his wife, Yalemzwed Desta. Originally from Ethiopia, the two opened the shop in 2006, hoping to teach coffee enthusiasts about their tradition. In his country, Bellay says, children are exposed to coffee at a very young age, watching their mothers roast it for community gatherings every day. "In the countryside, there is no media, no TV," Bellay says. "The community comes together to talk about the weather, marriages, cows. They get together to discuss the issues."

There wasn't an empty seat in Sidamo on a recent Sunday. Sit by the door for the best view of the ceremony. Notice the large coffee roaster (about six feet high and three feet wide) at the front of the shop. Bellay uses it to roast 10 to 50 pounds of coffee a day.

Investment banker Matt Andrea comes to the ceremony almost every Sunday from his home in Logan Circle. "Once you start drinking this kind of coffee, you don't want to go to Starbucks anymore," he says. "There's a freshness in the coffee that you don't get [elsewhere]."

Most of Sidamo's coffee is from East Africa. The most popular, called Yirgacheffe, costs $10 a pound.

The coffee ceremony felt authentic, say Alexa McVey, Danielle Tedesco and Karen Palmigiano, three former African Peace Corps volunteers. "It totally reminds me of something I would have seen over there," says Palmigiano, who volunteered in Tanzania.

The ceremony takes about 30 minutes. If you're hopped up on coffee after that and looking for something more to do, drive to the National Postal Museum nearby. The museum houses the largest collection of stamps in the world. Even if you're not into stamps, the building is still worth checking out. It was Washington's central post office from 1914 to 1986.

-- Moira E. McLaughlin (Friday, March 14, 2008)

Where is it? Sidamo is at 417 H St. NE; the National Postal Museum is at 2 Massachusetts Ave. NE.

What's it cost? The coffee ceremony and the museum are free.

If you have more than three hours: Head to Union Station for a bite to eat.