Picking an Ethiopian restaurant presents a draconian choice: you can head for one of the cramped little places in City Heights (Asmara and Red Sea) for authenticity or choose more spacious places (Muzita or the new Bayu’s) in nicer neighborhoods, with a more comfortable ambiance but culinary compromises for newbies to the cuisine.
Looking up Bayu’s on Google and finding no dedicated website, I read through Yelp postings, surprised at how many people don’t know about the region’s food staple, injera, and how hard a time they had cozying up to the idea of eating with their hands. In Ethiopia, and its neighbor Eritrea, people don’t use forks and knives. Instead, there’s a huge, light, eggless pancake that underlies all the dishes, with extra pieces of pancake to pick up morsels of food. This porous, lightly fermented pancake (the texture is often compared to an edible washcloth) is made from a grain called teff, the tiny seeds of a grass known to the English as “lovegrass” or “annual bunchgrass.” High in protein and vitamins, teff is low in gluten and probably fine as can be for low-carb diets, since it has no empty calories to make you fat — it’s all good. And it’s amazing how pleasurable it is to eat dinner with no metal in your mouth. By the end of the meal, the injera under the food has soaked up all the flavors, and you can tear it apart for an especially delicious final course. Proper form is to eat with your right hand only, but I doubt anyone will judge you at local restaurants. (Just remember to sit on your left hand next time you’re in Addis Ababa.)
I went with Deb and Deb, friends who work for Cygnet Theatre and who are so enthusiastic about this cuisine, they’ve attempted to make injera at home (difficult, without the heat of Ethiopia to ferment the batter) — and with Sam, a local-Ethiopian-food veteran. The room used to be a wine bar called Blue. Tables are topped by huge multicolored straw baskets with peaked covers. The basket tops are removed when dishes are served, the center of the basket filled with a large colorful plate holding the injera and the many dishes spread on top of the pancake.
The owner, Reem, comes from Ethiopian intellgentsia. She grew up in Alabama, where her aunt was a university professor. Reem doesn’t make injera in-house, but buys it from an African grocery in City Heights. Most dishes are drawn from the standard Ethiopian menu, but a few appetizers were new to me. We all liked azifa, a lemony lentil salad. More conventional are sambosas. With the meat version, the baked coating is a bit thick, but as you bring the packet to your mouth, you can smell the seductive cardamom in the filling.
Instead of ordering the regular meat combination, I went à la carte to try a few personal favorites. Kitfo is a beef tartare variation, highly seasoned fine-chopped beef (never ground beef) flavored by spiced clarified butter (nit’r kibe) and a searing spice mixture called mitmita. I wanted it raw (“just a little warm from the nit’r kibbe”), but it came lightly cooked and much milder than expected. Happily, there was a ramekin of spicy sauce. If you don’t get this sauce with your dishes, ask for it. Ethiopian food is supposed to be spicy!
Gored-gored, another personal favorite, has small stir-fried beef chunks with complex spices similar to kitfo. When I’ve eaten this at other restaurants (yeah, in that faraway food fairyland up north), it’s usually been made with sirloin or sirloin tips. Here, it was a stubbornly tough, chewy cut. Tells you that if you order beef here, order the stewed versions, wats or alichas.
Both doro wat (chicken) and ye-beg tibs (lamb) are on the carnivore assortment platter. Doro wat offers chicken legs stewed in a savory, dark-red sauce based on nit’r kibbe, onions, dried hot peppers, and a spice blend called berberé. It’s very good here — rich and dark; in careless restaurants, the sauce is often slightly burned. Proper etiquette requires that doro wat be served with a hard-cooked egg, to show hospitality, and so it is. (One of the Debs hypothesized that you not only kill your hen to treat your guests, you also sacrifice her last egg for them.) The lamb tibs is a light, bright sauté of flavorfully marinated shoulder meat.
Rather than choose particular favorites, next time I’d just surrender to the meat combo plate, which includes the doro wat, ye-beg tibs, ye-beg alitcha (mildly spiced lamb stew) and numerous other savories.
Ethiopia’s Coptic Christian Church calls for about 140 meatless fast days a year, so this cuisine is rich in vegan dishes. Centuries ago they glommed onto current eco-culinary theories — that to preserve our planet and our bodies, we ought to eat more veggies and less meat. Ethiopian food could lead the way, with deep and varied flavors. Take it from a hardcore omnivore, you don’t miss the meat when you get this much flavor from the veggies.
The Vegetarian Delight offers a tomato-and-onion salad, fresh mouth-relief from the heavier dishes, plus warm cabbage-and-potato salad (delish!), braised red lentils, puréed chick peas, sautéed collard greens, and timtim fit fit, a light-textured shredded injera salad that we all enjoyed. (It’s often a breakfast dish.) This is probably the healthiest food you’ll ever eat. Between the high-fiber legumes and the modicum of hot peppers — how do I say this tactfully? — your digestive system will rejoice. And since these are “fast day” dishes, the veggies are presumably cooked with oil instead of spiced butter.
The house-made baklava, the sole dessert, was moist with syrup but less sweet than Middle Eastern versions. I hoped for real Ethiopian coffee, since coffee was probably discovered there around 900 A.D. Today, two types of Arabica coffee beans, Harar (often combined with mocha for a gourmet blend) and Yirgacheffe predominate, and fine coffee is one of the country’s major exports. Alas, here the java tasted like ordinary American brew.
But Ethiopia’s tantalizing flavors are never ordinary in America, and this is a charming place to explore them. ■
Bayu’s Authentic Ethiopian Cuisine
★★ 1/2 (Good to Very Good)
530 University Avenue, Hillcrest, 619-269-6142; no dedicated website
HOURS: Daily 11:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., 5:00–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Weekday lunch buffet $10; dinner appetizers about $6; entrées average $12. Several combination plates available (e.g., “vegetarian delight,” $17.25 for one, could serve two with appetizers or additional entrée.)
CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Typical Ethiopian menu. Several unusual Ethiopian wines, reds, whites, and tej (honey wine) by the glass, plus Ethiopian beers and spiced tea.
PICK HITS: Best deals are combo plates, both meat and veg. Also azifa (spicy lentil salad); meat sambosa; kitfo (specify raw to get it fairly rare); ye-beg tibs (lamb). Awash Crystal white wine; honey wine.
NEED TO KNOW: Reservations and credit cards accepted. Warm hospitality. Request hot sauce if not provided. Vegan heaven.