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Jabriel Ballentine, host of the Gondar fine dining service at Almaz, is trying to explain to a diner why this meal ends with three courses of strong, sugar-sweetened Ethiopian coffee: The first serving, the most potent of the small cups, is designed to awaken you, Ballentine says. The second is a sign that the host enjoys your company and wants you to stay, while the third offers the guest a chance to reciprocate: a single sip of the final coffee shows your appreciation for all the host’s efforts.
The diner barely allows Ballentine to finish his speech. “We’re not going to get to the second round,” announces the customer with a snowy white beard.
And with that comment, the clash of between American and Ethiopian dining cultures comes into stark relief in the upstairs dining room on U Street. Ballentine, the man who created this jackets-required, multicourse meal, wants to give us an intimate look inside the ritualized world of Ethiopian Orthodox home dining. He wants us to understand the inseparable bond between eating and religion. He, in short, wants official Washington, home to the largest Ethiopian expat community in the nation, to immerse itself in a culture that even natives are sometimes loathe to share.
“We come into contact with Ethiopians everyday,” Ballentine tells me, “but we don’t know their culture.”
But such a desire is easy to express. It’s far harder for the uninitiated to grasp, as the diner with the thick white beard proves. His lack of interest in the full coffee service could be considered a snub in Ethiopian circles, but he doesn’t seem to get that. He’s only interested in avoiding a sleepless night.
This is the essential tension of Gondar fine dining, which Ballentine named after the first permanent residence of Ethiopian royalty. Americans, in general, treat dining out as entertainment, as a chance to eat with friends and loved ones while servers do their bidding. As part of Gondar, Ballentine is asking Americans to abandon their traditional dining notions. He asks them to imagine the quiet, low-lit space at Almaz not as another dining room but as someone’s home. He asks them to see their server and host not as employees but as partners in this meal. Partners, in fact, with a mission.
In Ethiopian Orthodox culture, home dining is not an opportunity to invite your friends over and impress them with a recipe ripped from The French Laundry Cookbook. It’s an opportunity for Ethiopians to practice what they pray. In Mark 10:43-45, Jesus tells his disciples, “[W]hoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve…”
Members of the Ethiopian Orthodox church take that passage literally, Ballentine says. If you’re invited to their home for a meal, they may fight over who serves you. “They get blessed for being of service,” he says. Their service, in fact, will be an act of self-sacrifice: They will pay such close attention to your needs they will not eat themselves, which is why, in Ethiopian Orthodox culture, you should feed your server. Not once, because once would be rude, but three times, because it’s both hospitable and a sign of the Trinity. Just like the coffee service.
No one expects you to feed your server at the Gondar dinner at Almaz; that’s a breach of American-Ethiopian dining etiquette that makes both eater and server uncomfortable. But as host of the dinner, Ballentine has a responsibility that you will feel, viscerally, in your gut: His goal is to make sure you’re full by the end of the meal. “If your plate is empty,” he says, “I didn’t do my job.”
How this plays out in the Almaz dining room may cause you grief, unless you understand the motivations behind Ballentine’s force-feeding. If, for example, you’ve eaten most of your yebeg wot, Ballentine will immediately present you with two more scoops of the spicy lamb stew, even though your injera is overflowing with other meats and vegetables to sample. If, perhaps, you’ve eaten all your lamb stew, he will have the kitchen prepare more. It leaves you with the distinct impression that you will never finish the meal, a disconcerting thought for Americans taught to clean their plate.
This ritual act of gluttony could, theoretically, continue for hours and hours. The host may not, at first, believe your protestations. Only invoking the Lord or the Blessed Virgin can properly end the feast. “That’s the only way to get something to stop,” Balletine says. “When you invoke God, when you invoke Mary, you have to [stop serving].”
Ballentine has performed his job well
on the two occasions I have reserved seats for the Gondar service (which runs $35 per person, available Tuesdays through Saturdays). I’ve walked away from the dinners feeling one bite away from collapsing face-first into my injera.
The meal begins with a ritualistic hand-washing. Your server will pour warm water over your hands, both as an act of hygiene and a symbol of washing away your stresses and problems, if not sins. The opening course will be an appetizer of your choice, maybe a spiced chickpea purée or one of chef Almaz Demissie’s bronzed, beautifully fried beef sambusas. The second course will be a simple green salad of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and loads of fresh, fiery jalapeño slices slathered in Italian dressing. The salad will also come with something you rarely see in Ethiopian restaurants: a fork and a knife.
The main course requires a choice: You select vegetarian, meat, or fish dishes. The latter option includes preparations I’ve never sampled previously, the best of which is tuna alicha, this dish of moist fish cubes mixed with a light onion gravy. I also dug into a sort of ground-tuna fitfit, sans the torn pieces of injera, which is at once acidic and spicy. The dessert course is optional, perhaps a square of chewy baklava, but the coffee service is mandatory, part caffeine injection, part Roman Catholic mass.
The coffee beans are roasted on the premises and paraded around the dining room in their roasting pan, as if they’re incense in a thurible, sending a prayer of blessing straight to God himself. Which, in fact, they are. “After we’ve fed you, we want to send you out with a blessing,” Ballentine says of the coffee service.
Ballentine understands the power behind this Ethiopian hospitality. He’s an outsider himself. Born in Detroit and raised in the Virgin Islands, Ballentine found the Ethiopian Orthodox church in 2003 and eventually found the members of the Demissie family, who have become his friends. Ballentine’s “spiritual fathers” within the church would take him to their houses, counsel him, and treat him to home-cooked meals. Now a divinity student himself at Howard, Ballentine is returning the favor at Almaz. He’s creating a space for Americans to experience the generosity and spirit behind Ethiopian home dining.
At least those Americans who are willing to sit through three rounds of coffee.
Almaz, 1212 U St. NW, (202)462-1212
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