ZED'S ETHIOPIAN RESTAURANT -- 1201 28TH ST. NW. 202-333-4710. Open: for lunch daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner daily 3 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations accepted for five or more. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.50 to $5.25, entrees $6.95 to $10.75; dinner appetizers $5.25 to $6.25, entrees $8.75 to $14.50. Full dinner with wine or beer, tax and tip $28 to $35 per person.
Zed's is struggling to develop a new image. This Ethiopian restaurant's first task was to move from the western edge of Georgetown to the mainstream at the corner of 28th and M. It now has a carpeted dining room with big windows on two sides. In this upgraded setting, there are tablecloths on top of tablecloths and vases of fresh flowers. The walls are decorated with charming carved-wood plaques and artifacts. The sound system plays African music. The waitresses wear formal black and white. And the Georgetown neighbors come to call. Literally. One night the cell phones were in constant use; a solo diner at a corner table was even talking on two phones at a time.
Ethiopian restaurants are working their way up from bare storefronts -- the first one opened here 21 years ago on Georgia Avenue -- to a scattering of plain and fancy dining rooms all over town.
Not only has Zed's spruced up its visual image, it has escalated its prices. I can only hope that upgrading the food is next on its list.
One evening I invited a French friend to try for the first time this African-cuisine-without-forks. Several wines by the glass at $4.25: a promising start. An appetizer of pale, unripe tomatoes, cut in large chunks with hardly any seasoning: a setback. Another appetizer of zilzil tibs, the chewy strips of meat thickly coated with hot berbere paste, which reminds me of Spain's tangy version of paprika: Now she could see the point. She caught on to the rhythm of tearing grayish spongy injera -- fermented pancakes -- into ragged pieces and using them to pick up pieces of meat and swipe up the sauces.
Seeking the broadest range of tastes, we ordered an entree combination and kitfo, a buttery spiced tartare steak that here was a mild version but pleasant and generous. The combination, though, was dispiriting: Doro wat was a chewy, dry chicken leg with a hard-cooked egg in a thick sauce that tasted tame, even dull. Two lamb stews, the supposedly peppery wat and the herb-buttered alicha, seemed to be competing for timidity; both were watery and drab. So were the dollops of collard greens and cooked cabbage that filled out the array. We dipped and dabbed with injera until we were bored rather than full. My friend went off to meet a French chef down the block; I wondered what she was going to eat.
But the bill for two was a mere $42 plus tip. The service had been liltingly gracious and rapid. I felt we'd gotten our money's worth.
I returned a couple of nights later and left with a harsher conclusion. I learned that the first evening we'd been given a lunch menu and charged its lower prices. This time the entrees were pricier, some by more than 50 percent. An order of bozena shuro was nothing more than a puddle, a thick puree of ground split peas and chick peas with a few dices of beef, bland and unsatisfying. Even though it came with injera and dabs of kale and lentils, it was a skimpy $11.75 worth. Special tibs was a larger ration of meat -- plenty, in fact -- but its preparation was slapdash. At most Ethiopian restaurants, tibs is beef or lamb sauteed with onions and peppers in a hot pan so that the chunks of meat are crusty and as caramelized as a grilled steak and the vegetables are aromatic. This was damp and gray beef with pallid onions and peppers, nearly devoid of seasoning as well as flavor. Those pancakes had more zing. This is also the first place where I've found the injera and the vegetable accompaniments served stone cold.
On other visits I've found some appetizing dishes, and at lunch prices they seem endearing. Infillay is boneless chunks of chicken coated with red-pepper paste and sauteed with onions -- moderately spicy and definitely flavorful. It's even better mated with spinach-flecked rice. Eggplant also takes well to the dark red berbere, absorbs its flavor and mellows it in a stew with sliced carrots and tomato. I wondered why this vegetarian dish was the most expensive one on the lunch menu (and the same price at dinner). Once I tried it, I thought perhaps the price was a measure of its succulence rather than the cost of its ingredients. In any case, this is a restaurant that does better by vegetables than by meat or seafood; the fleshy sauteed mushrooms with berbere are a far more piquant appetizer than the sauteed shrimp.
After these simple stews and sautes, the list of desserts is a surprise. Cakes are filled and slathered with poetic-sounding creams: zabaglione, chantilly, creme patissiere. Or so says the menu. Whipped oils and chemicals, I'd have guessed. I'd rather my last taste of Zed's be a final sip of Nigeria's grainy, golden-brown Goulder beer.
Mamma Mia: Italian food has long been America's favored ethnic eating, and two new restaurants this fall are banking on that. The former Vincenzo (and for a while, Sostanza), in Dupont Circle, is becoming even more Italian: Owner Vince MacDonald is turning it over to Francesco Ricchi, who originally ran I Ricchi downtown before moving on to Cesco in Bethesda, which he'll continue to supervise. Ricchi's new project is called Etrusco; its emphasis is on fish and traditional dishes not found in other Italian restaurants here.
And a few blocks away, the 18th Street space that the Latin/Tex-Mex Lauriol Plaza left behind when it expanded to a 330-seat restaurant up the street is slated to become, I'm told, another Italian restaurant.
Village Gossip: Mourn no more for Pho 75 in Arlington. The area's first Vietnamese soup restaurant lost its lease at the Colonial Village strip mall, but it's reopening in a couple of months, just a few doors down from that original site (Pho 75's four other branches, in Falls Church, Herndon, Langley Park and Rockville, are still going strong). In the same strip, the Village Bistro is no longer endangered, since it has a new lease, and it has hired back its original chef, Samad Benzari.
Meanwhile, Village Bistro owner Fred Baldaji has moved some of his eggs to another basket. He's bought Bistro Bistro in Shirlington and hired as its chef Gerard Vettraino, whom Washingtonians may recall as once running the kitchen at the long-gone Jean-Pierre on K Street. -- P.C.R.