March 13, 2017 at 1:58 PM
When it first opened in 2004, Etete was considered a pioneer among Washington's Ethiopian restaurants, offering a colorful, bistro-style atmosphere for the East African finger food that historically had been served in more utilitarian spaces.
Etete hopes that history repeats itself starting Monday, when the rejuvenated Shaw restaurant officially reopens to the public.
After a six-month renovation, the restaurant has not only updated its interior but also hired an executive chef to work with Tiwaltengus "Etete" Shenegelgn, the namesake and creative force behind the original menu. Etete's new face in the kitchen, Christopher Roberson, previously worked at Central, Vidalia and Farrah Olivia, the long-gone experimental restaurant in Alexandria, where chef and Ivory Coast native Morou Ouattara embraced everything from African spices to modernist techniques.
If all goes according to plan, Roberson could one day be credited as an innovator in modern Ethiopian cooking. Along with Marcus Samuelsson, the chef behind Red Rooster in Harlem and Marcus at the MGM National Harbor, Roberson is among a small group of pioneers trying to free Ethiopian cooking from its flatbread injera base and elevate the country's dishes into the realm of refined, if not fine, dining, a level previously attained in America by Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Thai and other cuisines.
"We're trying to make it the Rasika of Ethiopian restaurants," says co-owner Yared Tesfaye, invoking the four-star restaurant that elevated the ambiance and presentation of traditional Indian cooking in Washington. Tesfaye is one of several family members who launched U Street Parking before expanding into hospitality with Etete, designed as an outlet for their mother's cooking.
Exhibit A in the Etete makeover is Roberson's take on kitfo, a traditional Ethiopian dish of minced raw beef mixed with spiced butter. Etete's version will use Wagyu beef and come handsomely plated with injera crisps, farm-fresh cheese (a stand-in for the mild cottage cheese known as ayibe), tomato concentrate and an egg poached in spiced butter. On the opening menu (included below), Etete bills the dish as "beef tartar kitfo," a name that invokes chef-driven restaurants, not mom-and-pop Ethiopian eateries.
Both Roberson and Tesfaye say their goal is to maintain the fundamental flavors of Ethiopian cooking but present them in the context of a modern American restaurant, relying on plates and (gasp!) utensils, instead of mesob wicker baskets and a diner's own two hands. "We're still honoring the Ethiopian culture because the spice is there," Tesfaye says. "Why not change the presentation? Why not approach the masses?"
To assist with this transformation, the Tesfaye family has recruited longtime friend Nancy Koide, co-owner of SEI and the now-shuttered Oya. Koide has helped redesign the interior at the 50-plus-seat Etete, replacing the framed Ethiopian art and random press clippings with ivory and gold-leaf walls, their textured surfaces subtly outlined with plant life. Koide has also worked with family members to ensure their offerings would appeal to a wider audience beyond Ethiopian and Eritrean expats. Etete 2.0 now includes draft beer, including local craft brews, a departure from the mostly African and mainstream American bottles at similar restaurants.
The reason for the makeover is clear to anyone who walks along the U Street corridor, once the heart of the D.C. Ethiopian community. Condos, craft cocktail bars, designer shops and other elements of gentrification have eaten away at the old character of the neighborhood. Etete's owners felt they had to evolve or lapse into irrelevancy. Besides, Shenegelgn, matriarch of the family, is nearing retirement age. Her sons wanted to devise a plan to keep her involved in Etete ("mama" in Amharic) without relying on her expertise daily.
"This area is changing a lot. A lot," Koide says. "We want to try to make more approachable" for those in the neighborhood.
The new menu may startle old-timers. Roberson has developed a line of small plates, including chicken tacos wrapped in toasted injera, blistered sardines with coriander aioli and french fries sprinkled with the Ethiopian spice mix known as berbere. The only meal served on injera will be a large-format platter featuring, among other things, collard greens, turmeric chicken and alligator-pepper-crusted short ribs (a take on the traditional goden tibs).
The restaurant's renovation comes with a steep price tag — close to $500,000 — but it's hard to say how much more diners will pay to cover the costs. The small-plates format means the price per dish will be lower, Tesfaye says, but if you order several plates, your final tab will likely be higher than before.
To appease Etete regulars who have only known Shenegelgn's cooking, the owners have carried over a handful of dishes from the old menu, notably the doro wat chicken stew, the derek tibs and several vegetarian offerings. "It's our goal to gather all feedback and continue our experiment to fine tune our menu," Tesfaye notes.
And what does the matriarch think of all the changes at the restaurant originally designed to showcase her talents?
"I'm happy," Shenegelgn says, her words translated by her son. "I'm happy, and I want it to be successful."
Etete, 1942 Ninth St. NW, 202-232-7600.