An Uptown Ethiopian spot is in no hurry to make an impression.
In retrospect, the wait for the food wasn’t that bad: 15, maybe 20 minutes between courses—not nearly as painful as waiting all fall for Demera to open, which it did months after its beckoning sign went up. But it felt bad—tortuous, even. Chalk that up to the strong scent of cumin hanging in the dining-room air, the happy eaters surrounding us, and our suspicions that the food would be good—very good—if and when we ever got it.
Eating our appetizers only confirmed our suspicions. The vegetarian sambusa we tried had a flaky crust and a soft middle of mashed lentils, and just when the rich, savory flavor of the lentils had left our tongues, traces of pepper popped up and took their place. And there was the ambasha, a loaf of bread that couldn’t be more different from injera (the thick and fluffy ambasha had a blond crust that made it more akin to focaccia than to injera’s flat, spongy, pock-marked surface). It was accompanied by ayib begomen—a slightly dry cottage cheese mixed with greens, a simple spread that was long on flavor.
Though, apparently, not long enough. It did little to keep us from anxiously tapping our fingers on the table while we waited for the kik alitcha, mild yellow split peas transformed into a silky ginger-and-garlic–riddled puree, or the ye-misir wot, snappy red lentils brimming with ginger and onion. Both dishes were so intricate and layered, we couldn’t imagine they could ever be outdone. But then we tried the shiro, a mixture of legumes blended with a list of ingredients that sound the opposite of appetizing—bishop’s weed, rue seed—and it turned out to be the standout vegetarian entrée.
Our hunger now on the way to being sated, we started on the carnivorous options. The doro alicha wat (lemon-marinated, slightly sweet chicken legs) had been stewed long enough that it needed only the lightest pinch with injera to come off the bone; the kitfo (Ethiopian steak tartare) was cool and pure in flavor, and offset by the spicy chile powder sprinkled over it. The lega tibs (lamb stir-fried with garlic, peppers, etc) weren’t bad either—but their flavor didn’t seem to warrant the jaw-numbing gnawing required to get the meat off the bone.
Demera’s self-proclaimed specialties were next, but only one of them, the ye-salmon dulet (salmon cooked with green peppers and onions), earned the specialty title; others, such as the vinegary, vegetal ye-selit fitfit (roasted sesame with seasoned injera), did not. But by the time we got to them they were no longer necessary; we were adequately full now, all the waiting deemed well worth our time.
Our wait for the check, however—20 minutes with no food to look forward to—was a different story.