The first time I asked for doro wat, item No. 5 on the lunch/dinner menu at CherCher Ethiopian Restaurant, the waitress acted as if my order were open-source software, free for her to alter. “We have yebeg wat,” she responded, pointing to item No. 6, a dish in which chunks of lamb are simmered until tender in a cardamom-scented sauce.
Her quick redirect had an unintended consequence: I was more curious than ever whether CherCher offered doro wat, the chicken-and-egg stew often dubbed the national dish of Ethiopia. I inquired again, then a third time. Finally, the waitress caved and confessed that the kitchen had no doro wat today. A week later, I reenacted the same scene with another waitress. It was “Groundhog Day” on Ninth Street NW, and I was trapped in a doro wat-less Ethiopian restaurant.
Later, over the phone, I asked CherCher owner Alemayehu “Alex” Abebe, essentially, WTF? After some hemming and hawing, Abebe finally let me in on a secret: Ethiopians don’t go to his restaurant for doro wat, a dish they can prepare fresher and better at home. They want kitfo or the glistening slabs of raw beef known as kurt. So why even stock chicken and eggs, just to satisfy the three-year-old menu’s promise, when the food is inevitably headed straight to the trash?
One look around the cramped, 15-seat subterranean space, and you can see the truth of Abebe’s comment. Ethiopians and Eritreans, mostly men, gather in small clumps at the bar or around a wobbly table in the corner, talking loudly in foreign tongues, oblivious to Stephen Curry’s miracles during the NBA playoffs beamed to the televisions overhead. These men have yet to adopt the dining customs of their new homeland, that ying-and-yang of engagement and smartphone silence. They’re more interested in socializing, drinking and slicing into raw beef. The Ethiopian heart beats strongly at CherCher — and hopefully will continue to do so when Abebe expands next month to the first floor and officially adds an organic chicken doro wat to appeal to the broader clientele he’ll presumably attract.
In such a circumscribed environment, assimilation seems appropriate. So I order the kurt, also known as tere sega, and luxuriate in CherCher’s plate of unadulterated and uncooked cow flesh. Many establishments typically slice off hunks of lean top round for tere sega; at CherCher, Abebe serves thick squares of rib-eye steak, the yellow fat cap still attached, with more marbling running through the ruby red muscle. The rib-eye doesn’t put up a fight like the chewy top round can. Instead, the cut allows its cool, primal comforts to cozy up to the peppery complexities of the awaze dipping sauce and the mimita powder. The kitchen even adds an extra touch of authenticity: a third condiment built from Ethiopian mustard seeds called senafitch, which lets your nasal cavities take part in the pleasures of tere sega.
Even though the menu promises “lamb trip,” the dullet actually includes lamb tripe, not to mention lamb liver and coarsely ground beef that can be served raw (should you want it raw, and you should). As with other Ethiopian dishes, dullet has all the glamour of cattle feed as the mash-up squats on an injera-covered platter. To best enjoy dullet, you must employ the same technique required to see the true beauty of the Ethiopian table: You have to pull back the lens. Don’t obsess over small details — the lumpy, runny servings bumping into each other, the barnyard funk of tripe, the raw beef — but take a wide shot. Everything will come into focus. Taken as a whole, a stew-splattered platter assumes the colorful abstraction of a de Kooning painting, and the dullet sings in gorgeous harmony, balancing heat, flavor, texture and aroma.
CherCher — named for a region in southeastern Ethiopia that Abebe once called home — sits a few blocks south of the more famous Ninth Street strip known as Little Ethiopia. The restaurant’s location and its uninviting entrance, down a narrow flight of stairs and past the electrical boxes and meters, suggests a place trying to separate from the increasingly mainstream community near U Street. At present, CherCher feels designed to cater to its own, not the U Street trend-hunters.
The kitchen certainly doesn’t skimp on heat, and if you ask for something raw, the protein will hit your table with the heavy thud of fresh meat on a butcher counter. The special kitfo, radiant with piney cardamom and paired with homemade cottage cheese, looks as if the beef were pureed into a paste rather than ground into a ropy mass. When sandwiched between a sour, spongy strip of injera, the kitfo enjoys a forceful afterlife, its heat dancing on your tongue long after the bite has disappeared. The yebeg wat, by contrast, buries its heat under a sweet, tomato-rich sauce, as complex as Oaxacan mole.
The beef tibs, whether sauteed or fried, tend to follow a pattern: The glossy and chewy zilzil tibs align themselves as much with their accompanying peppers and onions as with the spiced clarified butter (niter kibbeh) they were sauteed in. Likewise, the fried and chewy CherCher house special tibs absorb the tight, interlocking flavors of the jalapeños and onions mixed into the dish. Both entrees benefit from a dip in the flame-throwing awaze sauce to amplify their modest charms. Or just bundle the nuggets with one of the kitchen’s uniformly excellent vegetarian stews and salads, whether the spicy split lentils or the earthy, almost candied beets. The only beef dish I’d actively avoid is the kuanta firfir, whose star protein has been dehydrated into something resembling snakeskin.
On my final visit to CherCher — my fourth — I finally scored an order of doro wat, a heaping plate of dark chicken meat slathered in a sauce of unusual sophistication, at once sweet and hot. If this is a dish that Ethiopians can make better in their own kitchens, I need to start following them home.
1334 Ninth St. NW, 202-299-9703, www.chercherrestaurant.com
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 11 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Shaw or Mount Vernon Square, with a 0.3-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $6.50-$16.99.