Seasons in the Abyssinian: Demissie knows spices­—consistency is another matter.
Seasons in the Abyssinian: Demissie knows spices­—consistency is another matter.

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In a town teeming with Ethiopian restaurants, I seem to be forever looking for one, just one, I can endorse without issuing some sort of caveat. You know, like: “Etete is fine if you don’t mind eating doro wat in a space with all the personality of a hotel lobby.” Or: “Dukem is pretty decent if you don’t mind tackling your server for a goddamn glass of water.”

For reasons I can’t fully explain, I had hoped that Queen Makeda would become my go-to Ethiopian outlet. My first impression was certainly good: Last year, the family that owns the restaurant renovated the once-concrete-heavy space in Little Ethiopia, and the results are quite inviting. The fully stocked bar and the flat-screen TV seem like American concessions, but they’re just bit players compared to the massive, engrossing snapshots of everyday Ethiopian life on the walls, which set the right tone before a single roll of sour, spongy injera bread ever hits the table.

The ambience, in fact, was the only warm thing about the place when I first met the Queen on a cold Sunday afternoon in December. It was deserted, and my wife, Carrie, and I picked out a table that looked like a cowhide-covered drum topped with glass. We shivered in our winter coats as a woman, seemingly the only person in the place, brought us menus. As we rubbed our hands and reviewed our options, she began a mercy campaign to warm up the room. She turned on the space heater to my left, flipped on the fake fireplace to Carrie’s right, and fetched the chef, family matriarch Kefaynesh Demissie, who became our personal guide, waitress, and cook for the afternoon.

Demissie is a shy woman with a shaky grasp of English, so I was only mildly miffed when she forgot my spiced tea, which I had hoped would serve both as drink and hand-warmer. She did, however, produce our two entrees—the aforementioned doro wat, a thick chicken stew, and a spiced mound of raw beef known as kitfo—which she scooped onto an injera-covered platter with an assortment of vegetables until the whole thing resembled an artist’s palette. The doro wat was fragrant, somewhat fiery, and altogether forgettable, like too many American versions of this so-called national dish of Ethiopia. The problem was the meat, a sawed-off leg bone cooked to the point of stringiness. All told, the dish reminded me of what some Ethiopian transplants once shared with me: They avoid doro wat in the States.

The kitfo, by contrast, was completely untamed—hot, buttered animal muscle that practically twitched on the platter. Unlike many versions I’ve sampled, this one wasn’t chopped into small, uniformly diced pieces as if the dish were auditioning for the appetizer menu at Farrah Olivia or something. This meat was ground into irregular hunks, some as square as rolling dice, others just shreds of crimson meat. The texture, it seemed, served a purpose: It provided a welcome element of chewiness in a dish that usually tries to appease you with its heat and rounded notes of Ethiopian butter. The kitfo was so rich, and so fragrantly hot, I could have eaten the whole thing. Only my well-developed sense of self-preservation—let’s just say nuclear-spiced kitfo has its digestive costs—prevented me from doing so.

Consider how surprised I was when those unfortunate consequences never came, and for that, I have to credit my mysterious spiced tea, which finally arrived at the end of my meal. Demissie described the ginger-and-clove brew as a digestive, and I’ll be damned if she wasn’t right. The Queen knows what’s good for you.

I wish I could say Queen Makeda was always such a reliable friend. Some of the descriptions on its compact menu, however, can set you up for betrayal. The tibs wat promises “tender cubes of prime beef fried in a pan, then sautéed in red onion sauce, red pepper, and seasoned butter.” The entree turns out to be a pile of too-chewy beef in a plodding sauce that’s heavy on the tongue and light on spice. The yebeg alicha makes a similar pledge: “tender pieces of lamb braised very slow in butter and seasoned with garlic and ginger.” The reality is a little less savory, a stew of semitender lamb smothered in a sauce whose heat registers only after a beat or two.

My inclination is to assert that Queen Makeda fares better with its vegetarian dishes, which makes sense when you realize Demissie and her family follow the tenets of the Coptic Orthodox Church, including its many fasting periods in which the faithful avoid all animal products. My opinion on the matter was cemented on a recent Friday evening when Carrie and I sampled one delight after another from the vegan combo platter called yetsom beyeaynetu. Actually, the yetsom was less a cohesive vegetarian platter than a random assortment of bites scattered among our orders of gored gored and doro wat.

When not gorging on gored—essentially kitfo served with cubed, not ground, beef—and bemoaning (again) the doleful state of the doro wat, we raved about the sweet, soft carrots and string beans in the fasolia. We sighed over the salt level in the surprising stewed collard greens. We drooled over the soft texture and subtle heat of the misir, these red lentils simmered in a spicy berbere sauce. I should, of course, note that we had plenty of time to fuss over our veggies. Our waitress had all but abandoned us. Our quick dinner turned into a two-and-a-quarter-hour finger drum roll. People run marathons in less time.

The funny thing is, our never-ending dinner was not the most bizarre experience we had at Queen Makeda. The oddest moment occurred on my first visit back in December. When the check arrived, I asked Demissie if she took credit cards. She seemed to indicate that she didn’t but kept insisting that I could use my bank card. I finally surmised that she had an ATM on the second floor. So I followed her up the stairs and behind the bar where I came face to face with Queen Makeda’s credit card machine. I had to run my own card.

I hate to say it, but Queen Makeda is yet another one of D.C.’s many Ethiopian restaurants that comes with a caveat.

Queen Makeda, 1917 Ninth St. NW, (202) 232-5665.

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