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For years, Zed’s enjoyed a reputation as one of the best Ethiopian restaurants in D.C. You ask: By what measure? Good question. In D.C., Ethiopian cuisine is as readily available as it is famously predictable, and from a culinary standpoint, Zed’s never did anything that obviously propelled it above the fray. Sure, its rosemary short ribs were a distinct house specialty, but only the most dedicated injera eater would notice that Zed’s stews were richer than most and that its vegetable purees tickled heretofore unexplored regions of the tongue.
What set Zed’s apart was that it was Zed’s, a restaurant with a minuscule awning emblazoned with a name that could belong to anyone’s uncle. The restaurant was a narrow, three-tiered space located within an eccentric clutch of restaurants on the far side of Georgetown, and its state of dilapidated coziness suggested that it had been around. That it had regulars. That if you were hungry, you might just be able to go for a runny pile of roasted flax seed.
Note the use of the past tense in the paragraphs above. Zed’s as we knew it is no more. It’s not gone; it’s just gotten ambitious. The restaurant has moved less than a mile down the street from its original outpost, but spiritually, it now resides in a different universe. Instead of sitting in the part of Georgetown best known for the Exorcist steps and its dearth of overpriced retail stores, Zed’s now sits across from the Four Seasons, where it practically announces that you’ve just entered a place where the subway doesn’t go.
It took three months to renovate the new digs, and the effort shows. The main dining room could feasibly serve as the stage for bloody prime rib or old-school French food. The ceilings are high, the white tablecloths are sharply pressed, and a bar in the corner stocks decent cognac. The low lighting flatters decidedly un-Ethiopian desserts such as profiteroles, and as you take your seat, the wine list that you’re handed doesn’t seem out of place. Given the ambiance, it’s what you expect.
It’s a relief—and not much of a surprise—that, despite all of the cosmetic improvements, Zed’s food is virtually the same as it’s always been. A quick perusal of the menus at several different Ethiopian restaurants speaks to the cuisine’s limits—those menus are close to identical. But as anyone who’s made the food a habit knows, eating Ethiopian cuisine isn’t about experiencing exotica and exploring fusions. At a good Ethiopian restaurant, the only blending going on will probably involve split peas; the appeal is in finding comfort in that mush and then digging in with your hands.
The new Zed’s, like the old, produces some of the finest vegetarian cooking in the city. The combo plate shows off several of the house’s best: hot-pepper-spiked red lentils, simple farm vegetables moistened with stewed tomato, garlicky split peas, collard greens that could sit nicely on a plate with fried chicken. The food is neither mind-blowing nor boring. If anything, holding forth over a vegetarian spread will force you to become dexterous with the injera. The pinch-then-wrap method is clearly the only way to eat the beet-and-bean house salad, although I’m still flummoxed by the art of handling that spicy flax seed. The stuff’s too saucy to really get a hold of, but if you dip and soak, you’re liable to drip something on your shirt. Our seasoned waitress offers no answers. “It’s messy” she says, and leaves it at that.
Meat dishes are easier to approach, although there are a few that you may want to keep at arm’s length. Doro watt and infillay, both chicken dishes, are marred by meat that’s been carelessly deboned, and an order of simply marinated meat (“special tibbs” on the menu) is simply hard to chew. Kitfo presents no such problems. The meat is finely minced, succulent, raw, and seasoned with herbed butter and chili; it’s Ethiopia’s version of steak tartare and arguably the best thing on Zed’s menu. If you prefer your meat a little more dead, go all the way. The beef in tibbs watt, like the lamb in yebeg kaey watt, has been stewed to submission in the house’s spicy berbere sauce. As a result, it’s meltingly tender; the way the flavors unfold in my mouth reminds me of good roadhouse chili, sans the beans and the macho posturing.
Any number of Zed’s dishes could be numbingly dull to look at if the staff didn’t offer them up with a little ceremonial flash. All of our servers are tirelessly bubbly. One presents our dinner as if she’s been waiting all night for the opportunity, pouring out opposing half-moons of herby cooked bulgur and stewed beef strips, then finishing the picture with a plop of spiced cottage cheese and a giggly pronouncement: “Perfect!” The whole production recalls nothing so much as the Zed’s of old, except for one thing: What happened to the short ribs? “We did those at the old place,” chirps our server, before shuffling off to get us another round of African beer.
Zed’s Ethiopian Cuisine, 1201 28th St. NW, (202) 333-4710.
There’s just no doubt that the Palomino is located inside the new Ronald Reagan Center. You’ll know it when the valet searches the trunk of your car. You’ll know it when the maze of hallways leading to the restaurant lulls you into a Dutch-like oblivion. And you’ll know it when your waiter blames the painfully cramped booths on the construction of the building. The highbrow chain does offer some good, not-so-cheap thrills. The pit-roasted, fennel-crusted pork loin is delicious. And I can sympathize with the reader who’s addicted to the gorgonzola-covered waffle fries. They will render you powerless. Even if you’re facing a mountainous pile, you’ll finish every last one, whether you like it or not.
Palomino, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, (202) 842-9800.
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