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Muzita Abyssinian Bistro

4651 Park Boulevard, University Heights

Take my word, the cuisine of the Horn of Africa is fabulous — but to know that, you have to taste it; and in San Diego, relatively few people have enjoyed the pleasure. With Muzita, we may have a breakthrough restaurant that introduces this food to all who don’t know yet what they’re missing.

When I moved here from the Bay Area, the state of local North African restaurants came as a shock. They were a couple of low-price “dives” in City Heights, “starving student” eateries. Back home, the much larger Ethiopian community in Oakland made Ethiopian food a delicious multiple-choice quiz, with numerous restaurants to choose from, all at prices from low to…well, medium.

At the best of the lot, the aptly named Sheba, the stunning owner, Netsanet (a dead ringer for the model Iman, or perhaps King Solomon’s “black and beautiful” Queen of Sheba) served as ambassador for the food and culture — feeding, educating, and delighting all who ventured into her beautifully decorated dining room or her cooking classes. After closing Sheba to move (briefly) back home to Ethiopia, Netsanet’s magic remained — she’d popularized the cuisine and set a standard to strive for. Soon, good Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants crossed the Bay and popped up all over San Francisco, so that “going out for Ethiopian” became as easy a choice as going out for Thai or Szechwan or Vietnamese. Needless to say, I’d love to see that happen here.

With Muzita, we finally have a charming, friendly bistro in a middle-class, attractive neighborhood, University Heights, to gently introduce San Diegans to the joys of this cuisine. It occupies a handsome Craftsman bungalow with a cheerful patio strung with twinkly lights (complete with coffee urn, welcoming those who must wait for a table — gourmet coffee is Ethiopia’s top export). The interior walls are decorated with East African art, and haunting African music plays over the sound system.

Dreadlocked co-owner Abel Woldemichael and his enthusiastic American staff welcome you warmly and are happy to explain anything you need to know. The menu provides plenty of help as well, with descriptions of the major spice blends and ingredients. Abel’s wife and mother are in charge of the kitchen. (They buy spices from tiny Axum Market in City Heights, supplemented by care packages from homeland relatives.) The owners quaintly and inclusively call their cuisine “Abyssinian,” the name of the one-time regional empire; the family is from Eritrea, but the terminology signals that the food will embrace Ethiopian flavors, too. (Truth to tell, I could never distinguish much culinary difference between these oft-warring next-door neighbors.)

The Lynnester, Scottish Sue, and Saint Steve, all total Africa virgins, joined me. And before my usual carping and quibbling begins, note that my friends were thrilled with the meal. If I was less impressed, it’s because I’m stuck with a pre-existing and exalted standard from Netsanet (which is why I mentioned her). The very strategy that makes Muzita such an attractive introductory course in this cuisine — adapting the food to the San Diego palate — left me occasionally disappointed, and sometimes even crestfallen. But as Rummy nearly said, you eat at the restaurants you’ve got, not at the restaurants you want.

A careful look at the menu reveals a “green,” slow-food ethos, with earth-friendly ingredients such as local-grown produce, free-range eggs, and Brandt’s semi-grass-fed, humanely raised beef. If the prices are higher than at the restaurant’s City Heights cousins, they’re justified not only by higher rent and spiffier decor but by costlier ingredients — and also by a larger staff both in the dining room and the kitchen. This is not a bare-bones mom ’n’ pop, but mom ’n’ pop gone thoroughly pro.

One of the line-cooks is reportedly from the American South, and we began with a dish that fused Southern and African cooking (not a stretch): Teff-encrusted bamya — deep-fried okra coated in Ethiopian whole-grain flour. Teff is a high-protein, low-glycemic, low-gluten grain native to the Horn of Africa, the most nutritionally vital foodstuff in the region, and one of the healthiest grains on the planet. As finer-ground flour it goes into injera pancakes, the staple starch. Whole (or perhaps coarse-ground), with the color of mahogany and the texture of cornmeal, teff makes a terrific coating for fried foods, like these perfect firm-tender, slime-free okra fingers, gorgeously garnished with spiced roasted tomatoes and caramelized cippolini onions with a golden-pepper emulsion. As Lynne said: “Oh, yum!” (Teff also coats a fried calamari appetizer that I mean to try next time.)

With no fork, how do you cope with the enticing garnishes? Here’s where injera steps in — the Horn of Africa’s famous “edible washcloth” (as food scholar Charles Perry calls it). Injera is a flat, porous pancake made of fermented teff, tasting wheaty with a pleasant sour undertone from the fermentation that makes for a bubbly dough. It’s both your utensil and your plate-lining (a large round served under the entrées, soaking up their juices — and to gobble up when you’re finished. It’s delicious, try to save room). At Muzita, rectangular lengths of the pancake are rolled up like linen table napkins and served alongside the dishes. Unroll, tear off sections, and use to pick up other morsels. In this part of Africa, it’s all finger-food, and a heck of a lot more sensual than biting down on metal. Netsanet told us that in Ethiopia, lovers enjoy hand-feeding each other bites of injera-wrapped goodies. Keep that in mind: Muzita would be a great date destination, whether the goal is romance, sensuality, or both.

Sambusas are North Africa’s adaptation of Indian samosas — crisp little stuffed pastries. (Indian merchants, trading all over the world, leave a trail of samosas like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs.) The fillings can be anything at all, savory or sweet. Here, the three choices are drawn from other regular menu items: alitcha (mixed vegetables), hamli (collards and spinach, a more typical filling), and dorho tsebhi (braised chicken). They are all very good. A small plate of awaze (hot spice-paste) dipping sauce accompanied the pastries. “I’m not into really hot,” said Lynne, “but I wouldn’t count this as hot at all.” The rest of us agreed. You may want to ask for an extra dish of awaze (pronounced “ah-WAH-zeh”) to see you through the meal, since absolutely nothing, as cooked here, is fully up to the typical spice level of this cuisine.

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