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A different take on Ethiopian For starters, it's in the Atlas District

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By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, June 27, 2010

If you think all Ethiopian restaurants are cut from the same cloth, you have yet to visit Ethiopic. Its placement alone, in the up-and-coming Atlas District, sets it apart from its dozens of competitors, many of which call Shaw home.

But first you have to find the spot. The facade of the new restaurant is so unassuming, I've had friends walk right by it on their way to meet me. ("I'm standing on the corner of H and Fourth streets. Where is this place?" one called from her cellphone. "Turn around. You're here," I said.) Not everyone might notice the bullet hole in the door handle. But everyone is likely to be charmed by what they see when they step inside Ethiopic.

The wood floors are buffed to a sheen. Illuminated columns, swathed in linen and painted with Amharic letters, are both practical and handsome. Most of the seats are Western-style; set in the window alcoves, however, are messobs, the traditional woven-basket tables from Ethiopia. The dining room is tidy and small, with seats for fewer than 40. It's also easy to look at, thanks to art collected by Meseret Bekele, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Samuel Ergete.

The financial aid officer and former data processor, respectively, are new to the business and say they are determined to deliver more style and better service than their rivals. The couple also want their food to taste like the cooking they grew up with back in Ethiopia, which they say is in part a little spicier than what they've encountered here. Though I've experienced heat similar to Ethiopic's at the competition in the area, the newcomer is noteworthy for its layering of flavors.

Sample what the owners are talking about with buticha, chickpeas pureed to look like scrambled eggs and served chilled. Appearances are deceiving. The salad's sunny yellow color comes from curry, and the green bits are jalapeƱo, which adds crunch and bite to the appetizer. Fearless types can test their mettle with kitfo. It's similar to steak tartare, except that the minced raw beef is enriched with melted spiced butter and can be lightly cooked if you ask. Its distinctive firepower comes from mitmita, a reddish blend of chili peppers, cumin, cloves and other enhancers. My preference is to enjoy the ruddy meat raw and balance its heat with some of the accompanying cool and crumbly cottage cheese.

Those and just about everything else on the menu are eaten with the multipurpose Ethiopian flatbread called injera, which resembles a spongy beige crepe and smacks pleasingly of sourdough. A basket of rolled injera shows up with your meal; pieces of the bread, which is made with teff, a hardy and highly nutritious grain native to Ethiopia, are ripped off and used to swipe bits of food from a platter that's lined with more injera. Some visitors to Ethiopic have requested utensils to eat with, Ergete says. Forks are one of the few concessions the owners have made to their concept since the restaurant opened in March.

Injera isn't the only bread served here. Diners are welcomed with a basket of moist chunks of house-baked whole-wheat bread and a dip of olive oil laced with berbere, the fiery spice blend essential to a number of Ethiopian dishes.

Doro wot is perhaps the best known of Ethiopia's dishes and the one by which purveyors are often judged. Chicken legs served with a hard-cooked egg and draped with a thick sauce that can be ordered hot or not doesn't sound complex, but when its liquid cloak is done well, as it is here, it's every bit as nuanced as a Mexican mole. To share the stew, you smash the egg and strip the flesh from the chicken using injera and your fingers. (Neatniks, be warned: Ethiopian food is messy going. And don't wear white.) Lamb has a slight edge over beef, judging from several dips into the dining room. I'm partial to tender pieces of lamb accented with garlic, rosemary and more.

There's sufficient meat to admire here, but vegetables should be your focus (and not just because Mom would approve). Shredded collard greens could use a little more kick, but everything else is dressed for success. Consider launching a meal with a scarlet salad of sweet diced beets and potatoes sharpened with red onion, black pepper and lemon juice. Then move on to a sampler of meatless items: Puddles of slow-burning yellow and brown lentils alternate with those collards and a mix of tomatoes, onions and jalapeƱos on the platter. The combination makes for gutsy eating. Also good are the marble-size chickpea dumplings shot through with garlic, onions and red pepper.

The only dish I wouldn't wish to repeat is the fried fish (croaker), which is just that: head-on fish with only a slight crunch and a wedge of lemon to moisten it. There's nothing wrong with the steamy entree; it just doesn't deliver the bang the other dishes do.

Service is well-intentioned, but it could stand more polish. The tables are too small to accommodate the food, which means someone typically is hovering over you, trying to figure out where to put the hubcap-size metal trays arranged with dollops of lunch or dinner.


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