Berbere Good

The closer you get to this Eritrean restaurant, the better it looks.

Eritrean and Ethiopian cooks are known for their genius in building flavor-drenched stews: Sautéing onions, garlic, and meats in spiced butter. Adding ginger,cardamom, cloves, and the complex blend of dried chiles, spices, and herbs called berbere. Simmering it so long that all the peculiar aromas forge together. There's no speeding up slow food like that–the longer it simmers, the better. So I found it interesting that when I asked Neguse Girmai, owner of Dahlak Eritrean Restaurant, what therestaurant's specialty was, he told me freshness. "We cook every day," he said. "Other restaurants tend to prepare their food once a week and keep it in the refrigerator. Not us." You can, in fact, taste that freshness in Dahlak's vegetarian combo, mounds of stewed vegetables arranged around a salad on a round enamel tray. The vegetables are so vividly colored they look like a painter's palette; in them, you can taste the full range of flavors the cooks have mastered. There's the bright emerald and clean, grassy taste of braised mustard greens, and blanched green beans the same color, untarnished by days in the fridge. The scent of fresh ginger glimmers in the mild turmeric-tinted split peas and brings out the sweetness of carrots and cabbage. Okra is stewed with berbere until the pods' slimi-ness melts away, and the red lentils are imbued with even more of the ruddy spice mixture. Enough spice, in fact, to make you reach for your beer. The vivid spicing and bright flavors of Dahlak's food–which rival the quality at my existing favorite, Meskel, on Capitol Hill–came as somewhat of a surprise given how long it took me to work up the nerve to try Girmai's two-and-a-half-year-old restaurant. Even by my lax standards, it's a sketchy-looking place, located on a run-down stretch of Rainier Avenue just south of I-90. The entrance to the white, wood-slat building has no windows, thanks to its past as a strip club, and the only exterior adornment is a string of multicolored Christmas lights and an "under camera surveillance" sign. Inside, the view improves. Though the place is no Rover's, the walls of the front dining room are painted Mediterranean blue and white, with Eritrean memorabilia on the walls and the Ying Yang Twins on the speakers. There's a bar in front, a dozen tables in the main dining room, and the windows in back look into a darkened performance area that only lights up when Ethiopian and Eritrean bands play on Saturday nights. Often, the resiny smoke of burning frankincense gives the air a milky cast. The servers (some nights a shy middle-aged woman with patchy English, others a more gregarious younger woman) generate big clouds of the incense when they're brewing sweet, cardamom-laced coffee for a friend or customer. The smell can be overwhelming at first, but fades by the time the food arrives. I didn't stop by the mysterious Dahlak just to see the inside, though. I had another agenda: figuring out what made it distinctly Eritrean. Comparing the standard dishes offered by Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants–representing neighboring countries that have been linked politically and culturally for years–it's hard to tell the two cuisines apart. Same spicy stews and stir-fried meats. Same veggie combo plate. Same injera, that marvelously spongy, sour crepe, made from a grain called teff, that doubles as plate and eating utensil. Dahlak's menu is no exception. I thought I might be missing subtler cues, so I asked Girmai what made his food distinct from Ethiopian cuisine. "I knew you would ask me that," he laughed. "I don't see much difference between the two." Then it had to be the pasta. Thanks to the Italians, who governed Eritrea for 50 years until getting kicked out of Africa in 1941, Dahlak lists spaghettiand macaroni on its menu. It took a while longer, though, for me to order it. First, I had to fall in love with the shiro, a creamy, spiced puree of ground chickpeas served, bubbling, in a lidded clay pot with legs, which held in its base a chunk of burning gel alcohol. I had to wallow in the rich pleasures of the zegni beghie–lamb stewed forever with berbere–that came as part of a veggie-meat combo platter which also included lamb fitfit, pieces of injera steeped in spiced butter and the juices of braised lamb ribs. Where Dahlak's cooks failed to impress was with their stir-fried meats, or tibsi. The boneless beef slices on the combo plate were tough enough to satisfy my biannual craving for jerky. The lamb ribs mixed with boneless beef chunks hadn't dried out as much, but some serious teeth action was required to pry the meat off the bone of the ribs, and the marinade didn't have much character. It was meat for meat's sake. Not so with Dahlak's kitfo, often described as "Ethiopian steak tartare" and one of my favorite guilty pleasures. Not that there's any guilt in eating raw ground steak. But this is mixed with a half-cup–or so–of melted spiced butter and chiles. Each time I scooped up a little of the beef with injera, as well as a few curds of a tangy fresh pot cheese, I melted into the creaminess of the raw meat, the sheer luxury of melted butter and cheese, and the flush of chiles. (It's acceptable to order kitfo seared, but then you lose that unctuous texture.) But it's one thing to trust the chefs with raw meat and another to trust them with pasta. On my last visit to Dahlak, I finally ordered the macaroni. I expected it would make for good copy if nothing else, but the berbere-scented tomato-beef ragout saucing respectably al dente rigatoni was so rich, spicy, and delicious that I had to try it again. So the next day, I took my leftover kitfo out of the refrigerator, stewed the chile-and-butter-saturated beef together with sauteed onions and tomato puree, and dined on orecchiette. Eritrean style.

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