Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant

$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

2011 Spring Dining Guide

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, May 15, 2011

Meskerem has been serving spiced raw beef and shrimp in onion sauce for 26 years now, and frankly, the three-level restaurant in Adams Morgan is showing its age. Glimmers of yesterday's heyday remain, though, in the bright yellow sunburst painted on the ceiling and the handsome Ethiopian paintings and musical instruments drawing eyes to the walls. The faded raves in the window remind me to remind you: Restaurant reviews tend to go stale after a year.

The best seats are the basket-tables set in the windows up front (be prepared to have passersby stop and stare) and those on the top floor, arranged beneath a spoked skylight.

As at all Ethiopian establishments, diners eat their meals with injera, the tangy and spongy pancakes that are ripped into pieces for scooping up the food. Doro wat - chicken and a hard-cooked egg in a cloak of typically searing berbere sauce - is a celebratory dish on its home turf, but you might not get that from sampling Meskerem's version, which is shy on the heat. I've also found gored gored, strips of raw or rare beef traditionally rubbed with red chili paste, to be vanilla (and chewy) going, as if the kitchen were cooking for tourists. Sambusas filled with ground beef shatter at the touch, but the fried pastries are mostly show over substance; the filling is bland despite its curry seasoning.

Best to go meatless at Meskerem, and why stop with one dish when you can sample six or so by ordering the vegetarian combination? It's a tray the size of a hubcap, lined with injera and colorful with dabs of well-seasoned collards, sunny pureed chickpeas, near-liquid red lentils, potato salad flecked with jalapeos and green beans cooked to collapse. All help take your mind off the worn chairs and red carpet that look as if they welcomed the former standard-bearer's very first customers.