SO MANY restaurants these days make a point of exotic or escapist decor. Though exotic, to be sure, Tajitu, a meticulous and welcome Ethiopian outpost in the heart of Frederick, takes the opposite and most traditional of tacks: It does its best to make customers feel as if they were guests in someone's home.
Although the front lounge and middle dining room of this former diner have table and booth seating, the backroom has been made over to resemble an open-air gathering place, with straw matting overhead, hourglass stools and round-topped tables, lanterns and weavings on the "posts," and a few musical instruments and portraits of honored rulers hung about. Dining in this transplanted gazebo is not only a reminder of the hospitable traditions of this ancient nation but also that in a fast-food world, a leisurely meal with friends can be a special event.
The ultimate example of Tajitu's desire to recreate a culture is the coffee ceremony, which is a more appropriate term for it than mere service. Long needles (plastic, but meant to evoke the fresh reeds that would be customary in Ethiopia) are scattered on the floor by the table as a bed for a tray of small coffee cups. The beans are freshly roasted in the kitchen and the skillet brought to the table; it smells sharper and spicier than the oven-roasted coffee most Americans know. Then it's ground, covered in water -- the water is not boiled, but gets its heat from the beans -- and steeps until the waitress pours it in a deliberate stream from several inches above the tray. It's rich and complex, a subtle reeducation from the country where coffee originated. (Expect this to take a little time; remember, this is a social activity, not a franchised pick-me-up.)
The staff at Tajitu is altogether unusually articulate and gracious, eager to extend a sense of custom to novice diners. In addition to the menu itself, the restaurant presents patrons with a short explanation of Ethiopian food and how to eat it, complete with visual aids -- i.e., photos of desirable finger technique. More intriguingly, the notes also politely mention things that are considered rude and that might inadvertently offend Ethiopian sensibilities, such as licking the fingers or sticking them into the mouth rather than lifting a neat morsel to the lips.
The Tajitu cheat sheet also suggests that it's not considered polite to take a bite from another's stew or whatever is placed in front of another diner. That makes traditional sense: The large disk of injera is first a communal tray and only at the end becomes bread for eating. It's designed to bring friends together but also provides a kind of personal space. But separation of flavors runs counter to the American instinct to taste and share. You can, if you're neat enough, treat someone you're particularly close to by serving them a morsel yourself, taking particular care not to touch their mouth with your hand, but that may be more intimate than you want to get. In any case, the staff is kind enough to overlook small lapses.
Tajitu makes its own injera, not of tej but still a particularly delicate sour buckwheat version; it comes out already torn into four-inch-wide strips and rolled up like Ace bandages. The berbere sauce is better than the norm, not just a chili paste but aromatic and lightly bitter with brown spices; it's dolloped out for each diner individually (again, reinforcing the concept of communal but distinct dining). The dishes are not served too hot, at least for newcomers, but even the moderated recipes waft up a variety of spices -- the high-nosed whiff of white pepper, the woodier ginger, stony mustard seed, grassy-fresh green jalapenos and citrusy green chilies, sour red onion -- that many lazier Ethiopian restaurants shrug off.
Nor, as is also too often the case, do all the main dishes have the same consistency, and here again the staff is unusually considerate. One night, when several dishes ordered would have been cooked in too-similar fashion, a fact not obvious from their descriptions, the chef came out to recommend a substitution: yabeg wot alicha, lean fresh leg of lamb cut in small cubes and sauteed with a little onion in gingery-garlic niter kibbeh (like the Indian ghee, a clarified butter).
Shrimp wot, whole medium shrimp sauteed with salt and white pepper and then turned in a light tomato sauce, were just cooked through. Doro wot, the national dish of Ethiopia, is the traditional portion of one chicken drumstick and one hard-boiled egg in a gravy-like onion sauce. (Solicited for advice on how to address these largish items, a waitress says, smiling, "Smash them," and, squashed down with injera, both break into more manageable bits.)
For those more serious heat-seekers, the hot peppers stuffed with a sort of sauteed salsa is the obvious starter. Kinche is a relative of tabbouleh, wheat bulgur with parsley, tomatoes and bell peppers. Key sir salad is a potato-beet blend, while the Ethiopian potato salad takes the German style for a ride, a tangy, lemony relish with chilies.
There are more than a half-dozen vegetable entrees in addition to the salads; you can choose five or just let the kitchen give you a pretty complete sampler. Both yellow peas and lentils are good, soft but still textured; the salad version, called mesir azefa, is worth replicating at home, spiked with chopped onions and jalapenos and dressed with a ginger-white pepper lemon vinaigrette. The cabbage (tikka gomen) and collards (gomen) are blander than the menu suggests, but there's the berbere if you like.