The injera at Tsehay is not like many, if not most, of the spongy rolls you have unspooled at Ethiopian restaurants in the Washington area for years. Co-owner Selam Gossa buys injera made only from teff flour, a grain so tiny that its name is derived from the Amharic word yatafa, which means “lost” because “each grain is so easy to lose if you drop it,” writes Harry Kloman in his authoritative book, “Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A.”
All-teff injera is, by itself, nothing new to the local Ethiopian scene. Many shops and restaurants will import the premade bread straight from the mother country, along with their berbere spice blends and other indispensable ingredients. What’s uncommon about the injera at Tsehay is that it’s prepared fresh daily at World Foods, an Ethiopian market in Alexandria, where Gossa sources her flatbread, a fact that I first learned from Laura Hayes at the Washington City Paper.
The freshness is key. I still remember the evening I sat at the bar at Nazret Ethiopia Restaurant in Falls Church, a formidable establishment run by a formidable chef, Endalkachew Mekonnen, who imports 100 percent teff injera. His flatbread had been cut into squares and heated, an attempt presumably to revive tired injera. The problem was that the stack of squares had been, essentially, welded into a solid brick. I could not pry loose individual layers without the injera crumbling into pieces almost too small to use as eating utensils.
There’s no such problem at Tsehay. The tight rolls of injera unfurl into long, diaphanous bolts. Unlike the thicker, cheaper injeras cut, in part, with barley or whole wheat flours, the all-teff variety has little rise to it. It’s almost porous. Yet its frailty is its selling point: Sturdy enough to hold its form — and, just as important, hold the contents of your meal — the teff injera is also thin enough not to mute the stews or salads that you have scooped up with the bread. Plus, its slight sourness, a byproduct of the fermentation process, acts as a finishing blast of acid to every bite.
The injera, I have to think, helps explain why the flavors so often pop fresh and bright at Tsehay. Little in the way of bread stands between you and the dishes that Gossa and her sister, Sara, have cribbed from their mother, once a working chef back in Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital. Tsehay is, in fact, named after their mom, the woman who taught her daughters how to carry on her gastronomic traditions.
In Amharic, the word “tsehay” translates into “sun,” which sounds about right. Salem Gossa and her fiance and business partner, Daniel Seifu, built this restaurant as a monument to a woman who died prematurely in 2016, the harrowing victim of an everyday accident, the kind of fall that usually leaves behind only bruises or a bruised ego. In this handsome space in Park View, the sun never sets on Tsehay or her legacy of kindness and good homestyle cooking. Selam Gossa says that among her neighbors in Addis, Tsehay was known for taking care of people in need, sometimes allowing them to stay in her home.
The food menu here is small. It’s stripped of dishes that have become commonplace in other Ethiopian restaurants: the raw-meat platter known as tere sega; the offal plate of tripe, liver and beef called dulet; even doro wat, the long-simmered stew with bone-in chicken and a hard-boiled egg. What’s left are dishes that the Gossa sisters know they can execute with consistency and clarity.
I like to start with the vegetarian combo, a platter that allows you to sample each of the seven outstanding meatless dishes on the menu. Your server will spoon every preparation onto an injera-covered platter, one by one by one, an unusual act of tableside drama that allows you to savor the full spectrum of colors and aromas that slowly assemble before your eyes. Dark lacquered strips of sweet beet root. Red lentils simmered until they sting with the house-blended berbere spices. Honey-colored cabbage softened and scented with garlic and ginger. Collard greens braised until the toothsome leaves are coated with a liquid so savory, you’d swear the kitchen threw a ham hock in the pot.
You can supplement — or not — your veggie combo with one of a half-dozen meaty entrees. The tibs, whether lamb or beef, is an accommodating dish, adopting its sweet, tart personality more from the tomatoes and onions than the jalapeños. Likewise, the kitfo, a minced-beef preparation often served raw, smacks more of black cardamom than spice, unless you give it a generous dusting of the accompany mitmita, a fearsome spice blend. The most imposing dish is the yebeg wat, a platter of bone-in lamb, complete with connective tissue, that will have you reaching for water, or beer, in a feeble attempt to douse the fire in your mouth.
You can start your meal with either a sambosa or a cocktail from the full bar, neither of which will do much to stoke your appetite. The sambosas are wooden little pastries that conceal an aromatic mixture of lentils or beef, while the cocktail menu is a promise in search of fulfillment, particularly the mitmita margarita which is neither tart nor spicy.
My preferred starter is a cold bottle of Ethiopian beer, such as an Habesha, this sweet, bready lager that goes down way, way too fast. Order one and raise your glass to a mom who died too young — but whose memory lives on in the cooking, and unwavering love, of her two daughters.
Tsehay Ethiopian Restaurant and Bar
Hours: 10 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Sunday
and Tuesday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: Georgia Ave.-Petworth, with a short walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $3 to $16 for appetizers, salads, vegetarian dishes and entrees.