Ethiopian restaurants, sprouting like so many mushrooms in Adams-Morgan, once were largely interchangeable: The music, the service, the modest decor -- even the menus -- were virtually indistinguishable from place to place. For devotees of the cuisine, it was a case of deja vu dining.
Until Meskerem, that is.
Meskerem is savvy in a manner its competitors are not. If its menu looks familiar, its setting is decidedly unique. Three levels of dining, each level setting its own tone, demonstrate the diversity of this restaurant.
Take the main room, an expanse of sunlight, with ceilings that seem to disappear into an overhead skylight. Adorning the walls are musical instruments, said to be imported from Ethiopia, as well as paintings by Ethiopian artist Acha Debela. It rather resembles an African version of the ubiquitous American fern bar, what with its blond wood tables and chairs, and a cocktail list touting hot buttered rum and Irish coffee among other drinks.
Upstairs, overlooking the main dining room, seating is less formal but no less interesting: chairs give way to low stool cushions and large covered baskets serve as tables. Long wooden beams, bursting forth from the ceiling in a sunburst pattern, draw our eyes upward, and into a narrow skylight, the design's hub. It's as much a cultural lesson and a museum tour as a restaurant.
The food, served with injera (the rolled Ethiopian bread that some diners have been known to mistake for cloth napkins) and meant to be eaten with the hands, is at once peasantlike and richly seasoned. First timers might find the names and descriptions somewhat confusing, but the menu consists mainly of various combinations of cubed or ground meats or sliced vegetables teamed with one of two or three sauces, the hottest of which is berbere sauce, made of red pepper.
To start there are spiced shrimp -- fiery in their peppery red dip -- and two kinds of sambussa, which are dough shells similar to won tons, filled with a mix of either beef or lentils and green chilies.
The uninitiated would do well to order as a main course the Meskerem mesob, a combination platter of beef, chicken, lamb, and vegetable dishes, or its vegetarian counterpart. Both serve as delectable primers and both are respectable bargains at $7.75 and $5.75 per person respectively, less for three or more diners.
The meat mesob appears as an earthen rainbow of colors and offers a spectrum of taste. Arranged in a circle on a platter are chicken drumsticks blanketed with a chili-laced sauce, both spicy and mild stewed lamb, beef mixed with green peppers, plus a dollop of fragrant brown lentils, a mustard-redolent puree of green lentils, and flavorful yellow chickpeas. The salads that accompany these dishes include chili-spiked diced tomato and a wonderful chunky potato salad.
The vegetarian sampler features all of the same meatless offerings, as well as a flavorful carrot and onion dish, chopped kale, and a scoop of green lentils spiked with what tastes like pickle relish.
What to drink with all these aromatic, earthy dishes? Tej, a refreshingly pleasant Ethiopian honey wine, is the perfect foil.
More adventurous palates might opt for the Ethiopian version of steak tartare, the peppery kitfo, which is finely minced lean beef, infused with mitmita and served with a smooth, cool, herb butter. It's perhaps too much for one person -- after all, how much raw beef can you eat? -- but fine for sharing with larger parties.
You've tasted the heat of the berbere sauces, the pungency of the stews, the cool smoothness of the chickpeas, so you might as well stay on course with a cup of woody Ethiopian coffee and Meskerem's dessert specialty, atria, a bowl of fine, short noodles laced with plump raisins and tinged with sweetness.
With the enthusiasm of an upstart and a most attractive setting, this restaurant is capable of serving with panache as well. In a field as crowded as the one in which Meskerem finds itself, that's precisely what distinguishes this fine Ethiopian eatery from its competitors.