Out of Africa

Even if only two of you go for dinner, I'd recommend ordering three dishes: kitfo (standing in for an appetizer), the veg combo, and doro wat, to get a good range of flavors. (At these prices, go wild!) I told the waitress, "In any dish where there's a choice, we'd like it spicy." She accurately answered, "Only the kitfo is spicy." Kitfo is a special case of beef tartare. A solid hunk of lean beef is, typically, washed with lemon juice (as a hygienic measure) and chopped to a fine velvety texture just before serving (with all fat and gristle removed, in good versions). Hence, the bacterial dangers are closer to those of rare roast beef than to pre-ground hamburger. Respecting current food-phobias, the waitress asked if we wanted it raw or cooked; horrified by the thought of the latter, I said, "Raw, just warm the nit'r k'ibe a little." Nit'r k'ibe (pronounced roughly "neetra kibbeh") is the major flavoring of kitfo: It's spiced clarified butter, simmered with garlic, cardamom, turmeric, cinnamon, fenugreek, ginger, cloves, peppercorns, and (when available) rue and the cuminlike seeds of Nigella damascena, the charming flower known as "love-in-a-mist." With the addition of salt, cayenne, and even more spices, a good kitfo is a piquant, savory, and addictive mouthful. Rasselas' version was perfect, rich and spicy with nary a hint of gristle. Kitfo is often garnished with a puff of cottage cheese; here, it's bare, but we never missed the cheese.

The other selections were, as announced, more gently spiced. Doro wat is the national dish, a chicken stew flavored by a savory spice-mix called berbere. The quality of a doro wat is relentlessly revealing. Because the stew calls for plenty of dried spices mixed with a relatively small amount of liquid, it's frighteningly easy to burn the sauce, and many local restaurants do. And, following the Ethiopian custom of giving a guest an egg, a hospitable doro wat always includes one, hard-cooked. Eggless chicken indicates that the cook doesn't give a cluck. Here, the egg was present, the sauce wasn't burned, the chicken was tender, and everything was flavorful, albeit less spicy than I'd like.

We also had an order of ye-beg alitcha, lamb in a quiet yellow sauce with pronounced notes of onion and parsley. Small pieces of meat (on the bone) were mainly moist and tender, but relatively unexciting. More engaging were the assorted vegetables. There were large red-brown lentils in a rich, smoky-flavored sauce, and bland, soothing yellow lentils, and tiny mashed brown lentils in a creamy mayonnaiselike sauce. There was a slightly gritty white mash (perhaps garbanzo beans) with a clean, refreshing dressing. There were spicy mustard greens, which we all adored, and a mound of cooked cabbage that tasted like Russian food. Ringed at intervals around the plate were lettuce and tomato. All of us liked some of it; no two of us had exactly the same preferences, but we agreed that having all those tastes to nibble on was a treat.

At 9 p.m., an hour after our arrival, a live jazz band started playing in the next room at a volume that overpowered conversation. Mary Ann was still sipping "Ethiopian spiced tea" of questionable provenance, consisting of a tea bag and a cup of hot water. Nick and I had "Ethiopian coffee," which indeed had the chewy heft of Harar beans, brewed strong enough that we both dove for the cream. We gulped and were gone -- hey, we came for the food, not the sounds. And the food had been good, very good. Unfortunately, in a tiny restaurant (one cook, about eight tables, and eight or nine diners all told on a Friday night), there's just not enough volume (or enough cooks) to spice the food "to order" without compromising either its flavor (adding cayenne at the last minute just doesn't do it) or its speed of arrival. And unfortunately, on our side of the bay, Ethiopian cuisine hasn't yet gained the popularity or clout ("humble," indeed!) to make a dinner an "event" worthy of an evening's savoring, including some waiting time before the food arrives. At Rasselas, the dining room plays second fiddle (or sax) to the jazz club -- except, obviously, to the chef and the happy guests. With its out-of-the-way location (far from any of the more populous "restaurant rows") this is probably the least-known Ethiopian eatery in the city, but it continues to serve the city's tastiest, most authentic version of the cuisine.

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