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At the curved bar in the back, a man and woman relaxed over drinks—a rum and Coke for him, a giant, candy-colored cosmo for her. It sat on the edge of the bar, too precarious to pick up, and every woman in the place, including my wife, seemed to have her eye on it.
Outside, it was one of those impossibly muggy summer nights, but inside it was as cool and inviting as that cosmo. And jumping: the 30 or so seats were filled with a lively mix of couples and families and friends just looking for a place to chill. Yet the narrow space didn’t feel cramped—a testament to the sleek and tasteful environment: the soothing, two-tone paint job; the hardwood floors; the thin, wiry lights that dangled fashionably from the ceiling.
I could be describing any old trendy bistro. But I’m not; I’m describing a trendy Ethiopian bistro.
Yes, you read correctly.
And no, my wife couldn’t get over it, reminding herself at several points during the meal that we were in fact sitting in an Ethiopian restaurant. She was remembering all the dimly lit, stuffy dens we’d eaten at over the years, the smoky bars I’d dragged her to, the carryout joints with a few tables. Nothing this cool, this contemporary, this cosmofied.
I smiled; I’d been waiting to spring Etete—also the nickname of the kindly woman who does the cooking—on her for a while, ever since I’d wandered in one day for a quick lunch several weeks after it opened and had come away charmed.
Of the dozen or so Ethiopian restaurants to have cropped up over the past several years, this U Street eatery is the one most worth watching. It’s more than just the best-dressed of a group of relative nonlookers; it’s among the most ingratiating spots in town. The staff is hospitable, warm, and doting to a fault. To sit back and watch your food being ladled out from a black iron cauldron with such care is to feel a kind of pampering that is ordinarily beyond the reach of a place this inexpensive.
That first visit, I was halfway through my meal when my waitress stopped by my table to ask if she could get me more of anything. I assumed this meant the soda I was drinking and lifted the glass and nodded. She nodded back and then wondered whether she could also bring me any extra stew or maybe some more of one of my side dishes. Refills?
It gets better: The night I brought my wife, Etete herself—her real name is Tiwaltengus Shengelegne—walked out from the kitchen with a half-empty bowl. Would we care for the rest of the gomen she’d prepared?
I was raised with the belief that it’s impolite to turn down an elder who means to feed you. And Etete’s gomen is simply wonderful stuff. The collard dish is too often presented as an overcooked, dank-looking tangle. This one’s a bright, vivid green, glistening from clarified butter, and with distinguishable, still-intact leaves that retain some of their chew. Shengelegne laces this rich mixture with crunchy strips of jalapeño pepper.
Jalapeño, in a fine dice, liberally applied, also brightens a dish called azifa—green lentils tossed with mustard. Sharp, cool, and thrilling. Every bit as good as those two is another vegetarian dish that’s often treated as an afterthought: a simple stew of potatoes and carrots. Etete binds them in a sweet, peppery tomato sauce, concentrating their flavors and elevating the substantive into the sublime.
At none of my meals here did I exit with the feeling of groaning self-loathing at the load that was expanding in my stomach. This despite a menu that offers not one but two varieties of raw beef, not one but two versions of lamb tripe with lamb liver, and no fewer than six other beef dishes, including one rendition that’s tossed with onions, peppers, and tomatoes and cooked until it comes out sweet, tangy, and almost crunchy. The most popular of the meat dishes is a house-designated specialty of beef strips marinated in white wine and rosemary, which sends up a burst of steam when it’s spooned onto the big round of injera. But resist this temptation, and turn your attention to the lega tibs, a fabulous dish of cubed lamb in a rich, buttery sauce made from onions that have been caramelized until dark and sticky and mixed with red pepper, ginger, garlic, and cardamom.
The other standout is the kitfo, without doubt the best I’ve tried in the area. What elevates this version of beef tartare is its superior texture—the meat minced fine enough to break down its fibers and soften what is often a tough, chewy dish—and its subtle yet assertive seasoning—now smoky, now aromatic, now pungent.
There’s a complexity to the heat in this and other dishes, a lingering warmth in the mouth that suggests an intricate layering of spices, as opposed to a heavy-handed piling-on. Ethiopian restaurants with their eyes on a Western clientele sometimes tailor their cooking to timid palates, limiting the use and range of spices in the kitchen and turning out dishes that only hint at their full potential. So far, at least, Etete’s only concession to those sensibilities appears to be in its eye-catching cocktails and surprising wine list. Uncompromising cooking in the back of the house; contemporary elegance up front. I’d call that progress.
Etete, 1942 9th St. NW, (202) 232-7600.—Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.