Addis Cafe

$$$$ ($14 and under)

Editorial Review

Addis: Home Away From Home

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Jan. 12, 2007

What gives a fledgling mom-and-pop restaurant a healthy start? Good genes. All new chefs call home for advice, after all, and when grandma's secret recipes are already restaurant-tested and some of the spices packed up like a college freshman's emergency rations, the food is bound to taste like home -- no matter how far away that really is.

Gaithersburg's snug Addis Cafe, an Ethiopian eatery and mini-market that opened over the summer, is the first commercial venture for owners Jonas and Naomi Todd, but Naomi's family has been in the business a long time (her father owned a coffee-roasting business in Addis Ababa, and an aunt has a restaurant in Las Vegas). And she points to containers for sale of mitmita, a dry, rust-colored mix of ground chilies, cardamom and coarse salt used to flavor kitfo, the Ethiopian steak tartare, which her family packages.

The fare is not the only family-style aspect of the Todds' design. Despite its strip-mall location (in the same square as FedEx and Hudson Bay Outfitters) and limited space, Addis Cafe feels more like someone's living room, with overstuffed leather chairs up front and a sofa in the back where customers, and kids, are encouraged to relax. Paintings by local artists (painter Solomon Asfaw through January) are for sale, and a few bright scarves join the sacks of coffee and spices for sale on the shelves.

But the food is the draw, and Jonas, who has taken on head chef duties while Naomi greets and serves, has taken grandma's recipes to heart. The vegetable dishes are distinct and flavorful: The red lentils are cooked through but not pasty, which makes a nice contrast to the pureed yellow split peas, and the collard greens are the best version a homesick Southern girl could want (second most comforting: the potato, cabbage and carrot stew).

The tibs, small strip-cut meat (sometimes lamb, but here beef) in a spicy sauce, is tender and without a trace of the grittiness that carelessly prepared sauces can carry. Tibs can be ordered as a sandwich, which is likely to become a legend among area students and workers.

The kitfo, which is available only Friday through Sunday, is superb: entirely lean, chili-spiced to order and with far more true beef flavor than the typical version, a testament to its prime-quality origins. (Sadly, the Todds generally serve it cooked, to avoid customer unease, but press for it as rare as you can get it. And like the tibs, it can be ordered more or less spicy.) Doro wat, Ethiopia's unofficial signature dish that resembles a culinary chicken-and-egg joke because each serving includes a hard-boiled egg and (usually) a drumstick, is also available only on weekends. (The Todds are gradually expanding their business so they don't overextend, a frequent danger for small kitchens.) The dish is good, too, especially the thick sauce of onions and berbere sauce (chili and brown spices) cooked nearly to a crimson cream and arguably the best part of the meal.

The menu is short, although the veggie combo includes the lentils, peas, potatoes and cabbage, collards and a pleasant chopped salad palate cleanser, so you can cherry-pick from those if you prefer. (Vegans need only ask for the homemade cheese to be left off.) The injera, made daily in Silver Spring, is light and lightly sour; the pile of packages of the large rounds is constantly being diminished by customers who also raid the pastry counter.

Servings are not so modest as their prices might suggest -- the veggie combo, served on an injera-draped tray, is $8.15, and even the generous mound of kitfo is only $12 -- and two of you will be hard-pressed to clean the platter. On the other hand, don't push yourself: Leftover injera, popped in the microwave, is a treat and still makes the best blini base for any last holiday caviar.

Addis Cafe's other big draw is coffee -- strong, aromatic Ethiopian coffee, the beans roasted locally and made in an espresso-style machine. Famous-name coffee will never seem the same.

As yet the Todds have no beer or wine license; there's a cooler with sodas, juices and tea.