Named for the 3.2 million-year-old fossil that as serves as a link between modern humans and our knuckle-dragging forebears, Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant can feel like a portal into the way our ancestors ate, too. Like, back before we learned how to spark rocks and build a fire.
My platter of kurt, after all, is loaded with small boulders of raw, glistening rib-eye, a full pound of beef in all, each hunk revealing one stratum after another of ivory intramuscular fat. You could call kurt a true farm-to-table dish, given that the beef barely requires a stop in the kitchen before arriving at your four-top looking like field-dressed meat. But its lack of heat is not the only distinctive feature of kurt; so is its presentation. The platter is not covered, tablecloth-style, with injera (the flatbread instead is rolled into tiny logs and served with the meat), and it comes with that rare beast in Ethiopian restaurants: a utensil.
The utensil is a knife, and you’ll need it to slice the rib-eye into manageable pieces, before wrapping them in injera and dipping them into one of the small condiment bowls filled with various explosive substances. Purists will tell you there’s a proper method for cutting the meat, involving your thumb, your index and middle fingers and, most important of all, a knife hand free from the unsteadying effects of alcohol. Just don’t get hung up on the technique; kurt may be a ceremonial dish among Ethiopians, often served at weddings, but as more local restaurants add it to their menus, I figure you’ll get credit simply for ordering the raw meat. They’re going to cut you slack on your knife skills.
Once you get over the fact you’re eating like a lion in the Serengeti, you can truly savor the pleasures of the flesh. Lucy serves the freshest, richest kurt (also known as tere sega) I’ve ever had. The cool chunks of rib-eye easily yield to the bite, their buttery fat mixing with the dipping sauces (such as the chili pepper-based awaze) and powders (the mitmita spice blend) to provide contrasting delights. Go easy on the pale-green sauce that exudes a calm, cooling air; overload on it and your face will suddenly feel like that Nazi’s at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
If you plan to sample the kurt at Lucy, you’ll likely have to withstand one more visceral assault to the senses: a band, which is crowded onto a stage near the front door where it cranks out equally delicious music, but at a decibel level that could stop a charging rhino in its tracks. The kurt and the music are available Thursday through Sunday only, a blast of raw, unadulterated African culture at its best (and loudest).
Mekonnen Abraham and Seble Lemma, a pair originally from Dilla in southern Ethiopia, opened Lucy about a year ago in Silver Spring, which is quickly becoming the metro area’s second Little Ethiopia. By Abraham’s own count, there are 10 restaurants serving Ethiopian cuisine in the suburb’s downtown, a density that might cause lesser souls to reach for anxiety meds. “I think they do very well when they’re clustered together,” Abraham says about the community of East African eateries.
Abraham’s confidence could also be rooted in his wife’s skills as a chef, which are in turn rooted in Ethiopian home cooking but not bound by them.
Take, for instance, Lemma’s atypical appetizer, the kitfo sandwich, a filling bite that I’m tempted to bump into the entree category. It’s a French sandwich roll with raw minced beef mixed with the chef’s own niter kibbeh, or Ethiopian clarified butter infused with spices. As with a hamburger, you can select your own add-ons, such as collard greens or the fresh cheese known as ayib. Except the kitchen will incorporate your additions into the minced beef, rather than layer it on top. I ordered my sandwich with the cheese, which did little to tamp down the molten heat of Lemma’s butter. Mostly, I appreciated the chance to eat kitfo against a bread other than spongy injera, which can expand in my stomach like a self-inflating raft.
Another Lemma original is a dish she calls girgiro. It’s red wine-marinated beef (or lamb) simmered with Ethiopian butter and other flavoring agents, then served in a custom-made warming pot that appears to be heated underneath with way too much Sterno. The inferno mercifully doesn’t dry out the beef, largely because the tenderloin cubes are lounging in a buttery liquid that provides both moisture and a creeping heat. Compare that to Lemma’s version of goden tibs, a short-rib dish that she deep-fries to the point of dehydration, sort of like the Ethiopian version of Bolivia’s oven-dried charke. Despite their utter lack of succulence, the crinkly strips of beef still smack of oil and prove a compelling counterpoint to the dish’s sweet, soft onions.
Once into the heart of Lucy’s menu, the dishes turn slightly more conventional. The doro wot boasted a chicken leg cooked to the texture of a pencil eraser. The fish firfir, with pieces of injera mixed into the dish, might have fared better had the fillets made their dining room debut a day earlier. The dulet, a combination of lamb tripe and liver, was offal-ly good. The misir wot split lentils were at once hot, sweet and earthy, and gone in minutes. The collard greens weren’t stew-like in consistency, but more like a salad — chopped, barely cooked and spiked with garlic. I loved them.
Maybe that’s the key with Lucy, a restaurant named for our small-brained ancestor who likely subsisted on raw foods. The place’s best dishes require little or no heat.
8301 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday-Thursday;
11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday-Saturday.
Nearest Metro station: Silver Spring,
a 0.4-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $11.75-$19.90.