The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2018 Fall Dining Guide.
My nomination for best comeback goes to this tidy, family-run Ethiopian retreat in Adams Morgan, cheered for moving from cramped quarters in pricey Shaw last year, then mourned for going dark following a fire in December. Reopened in August, the kitchen still aces most of what you’re here for: crackling turnovers packed with spicy lentils or minced meat; kitfo, the raw beef dish best eaten with a side of snowy house-made cottage cheese; a vegetable sampler — scarlet beets, garlicky collards, yellow cabbage, brick-colored lentils — that suggests a pinwheel on its underliner of injera, the tangy, crepe-like bread that also serves as an eating utensil. Awazi tibs doesn’t taste like it came from the same chef. The lamb stew is timid, despite jalapeños in the mix. But a fan has to stop somewhere, right? A full bar means you can wash back your doro wat with (cheers!) a martini.
Zenebech: 2420 18th St. NW. 202-667-4700. zenebechdc.com.
Open: Dinner daily, weekend lunch.
Price: Mains $13-$16.
Sound check: 69 decibels / Conversation is easy.
The following review was originally published Oct. 25, 2017.
Ethiopian meals rank among the most intimate in the world. Even if a group of you order separate entrees, they’re all served on the same platter, invariably lined with injera, the tangy crepe-like bread that looks like a folded napkin but does double duty as both canvas and eating utensil. Sharing is expected, in other words. Among the sweetest displays of public affection is gursha (“mouthful” in Amharic), whereby one diner wraps some food in a swatch of injera and feeds another. If the feeling is mutual, the honor is returned.
Ethiopian cooking rates as some of my favorite, a sentiment born from my days as a student in Washington with an appetite for adventure but not a lot of money. Back then, Adams Morgan was ground zero for the stews known as tibs eaten around the basket-tables called mesobs. Celebrations — a new internship, the end of finals, the weekend — saw bottles of tej, honey-sweetened wine, being uncorked.
Nostalgia recently drew me back to the neighborhood, prompted by the news that Zenebech, one of the city’s longtime East African outposts, had finally relocated to larger quarters in Adams Morgan after shuttering in pricey Shaw last year. Equally compelling is the flavor profile, similar to that of my favorite cuisine, Indian, a tapestry of warm spices and addictive heat.
My first taste of Zenebech is a sambusa, often the only appetizer you’ll see on an Ethiopian menu. The fried turnovers, assembled from wonton skins by chef and co-owner Zenebech Dessu, 65, come with three fillings — lentil, beef or chicken — and while each is delicious, best in class is minced chicken pulsing with garlic, ginger and black pepper. Take a moment to crack the golden packet, its texture as snappy as a fortune cookie; the pastry is served lawsuit-hot, and only sometimes with a warning. But $2.50 buys you several bites of serious pleasure, and if your server thinks to offer it with the red dip that tastes like ketchup having a temper tantrum, so much the finer.
One test of an Ethiopian kitchen is doro wat, a zesty chicken stew that takes hours to make and is considered a source of pride on its home turf. Indeed, in earlier times, men were known to judge potential wives on how they made their doro wat. The base relies on onions that are cooked to near-melting with clarified butter and berbere, the incendiary seasoning that takes your tongue to Addis Ababa. The chicken, which simmers to tenderness in the sauce, the color of lava but more of a tease than a torch, is presented with a hard-cooked egg. Consider the test passed at Zenebech.
There are few Ethiopian dishes as captivating as the combination vegetable platter, reminiscent of a painter’s palette with its dabs of salads and stews in green and brown as well as autumnal shades of orange, gold and red. Zenebech’s edible pinwheel is no exception; the injera’s zones include tangy collard greens, dusky red lentils whose burn (from berbere) reveals itself over time, a tomato and onion salad spiked with chopped jalapeño, slightly sweet brown lentils and mellow yellow ones.
A menu item called 50/50 lets a customer order two meat entrees for $13. For contrast, and in deference to companions who aren’t hot heads, I tend to pair something mild, perhaps bozena shiro, tender bites of beef in a gravy of chickpeas and yellow lentils, with something racy, such as kitfo, Ethiopia’s version of steak tartare. Kitfo can be cooked rare, medium or not at all. The third option is likely to elicit a smile from your server. The best way to enjoy quality minced beef, glossed with seasoned butter and hair-raising heat, is raw.
To look at dulet is to be tempted to judge a book by its cover and opt for another dish. The gray-brown mash of lamb tripe and liver, along with beef and fiery peppers, is known to test some diners’ limits, but to them I say: The mix, with its pleasant mineral tang, is rich. The kitchen also makes a very good fish dulet, chopped tilapia that looks a bit like snow speckled with minced jalapeño, among other flavor bombs.
My eyes lit up at the sight of curry goat on the list, goat being my red meat of choice, although the dish was a letdown. Chewy meat in a vague broth, thickened with potato chunks, won’t get my repeat business. In contrast, I happily gnawed on goden tibs, beef short ribs that have been fried so the edges are crusty, and tore off pieces of injera, perforated like coral, with my right hand (only) to ferry sweet onions and sharp jalapeños from platter to mouth.
Sometimes glimpsed through a small kitchen window, the chef whips up her own injera, using a combination of wheat and teff, the high-protein grain native to Ethiopia and also known as lovegrass. (Gluten-free injera or rice is also available). A pleasantly sour all-teff version, imported from abroad, is another option, but it lacks the elasticity and moistness of the fresh product.
The tidy, two-room storefront, ably managed by the chef’s sons, Michael and Surafal Demissie, is dressed with glossy wood tables, a skylight and souvenirs Dessu collected on a trip to her homeland in May, including paintings of daily life in Ethiopia, some created by an artist-niece. A faux fire lights up the center of a wine rack.
Zenebech 2.0 comes with an amenity the original lacked: a full bar, just off the entrance. If you crave a martini with your food, no problem. The wine that best compliments the quilt of flavors is the crisp rosé from Domaine Bellevue in the Loire Valley, fragrant with cherry notes.
A window seat looks onto a world of competition across the street: signs inviting you to try meze, pasta, jumbo pizza slices, Indian, Korean and Mexican. If my experiences are a gauge, one date with Zenebech is likely to lead to more Ethiopian.
A chalkboard sign outside flags passersby with daily specials and, charmingly, English translations of greetings and other Ethiopian expressions. On my last visit, I jotted down "ahmesugenalew" for future use. I hope to poke my head in the kitchen and say "Thank you" in the chef's native tongue.
2420 18th St. NW.
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Prices: Entrees, $8 to $16.
64 decibels / Conversation is easy.