Eye of the Tigre

We enjoyed a sambusa ($2.75), a chimichangalike deep-fried rectangle of egg-roll dough, stuffed with a spicy, very oniony vegetable mixture -- it'd make a good snack if you're in the neighborhood. But our main courses (averaging $10 each) and side dishes were so awkward and lifeless, it's kinder not to detail them when a better kitchen needs the column space.

After the disappointment, we resolved to go another mile -- to the Inner Sunset's new New Eritrea, an erstwhile Massawa spinoff that changed hands in July. If you ever blindly bumped into a table at the restaurant's previous incarnation, be assured the bar is now brightly lighted (and disconcertingly mirror-rich), while the pleasant dining room in back is under a skylight.

The menu also sheds light on the cuisine with a short food glossary on the back cover, and lets diners choose their spice levels -- hot, not, or mild. Weekdays, there's a bargain-priced, vegetable-centered buffet lunch, but we were more interested in dining on several rare Eritrean dishes among the a la carte choices ($7-10.50). Our instant favorite, gored gored ($9.75), had chewy-tender lean beef cubes cooked rare and spicy, bathed in tesmi, the deeply seasoned clarified butter that makes kitfo so irresistible. Another house special we enjoyed was kilwa ($9.50), which seemed to be a variant on t'ibs -- it's a stir-fry of onions, tomatoes, green peppers, and your choice of animal protein; we tried it with boneless diced chicken, but decided the treatment would better suit lamb.

Sambusas ($2.75-3) came with a choice of three fillings: the earthy, oniony lentil stuffing was very spicy, the vegetable option (with lots of peas) was sweet, and an addictive meat stuffing had moist, chopped (not ground) beef, gorgeously seasoned with spices I couldn't even guess at.

New Eritrea makes its injera with teff. This East African ground grain (mixed with a little white flour and liquid, and fermented until bubbly) gives the pancakes a tan hue and a sourdoughlike tang that lends another layer of flavor to everything it wraps. The meat of the kitfo we wrapped in it could have used more picking over to remove the gristle, and its spicing seemed a bit shy. Seconds later, however, our server delivered ramekins of house-made dry cottage cheese (ajibo) and mitmita, kitfo's searing spice blend, to sprinkle on to taste.

A meat combination plate started with zigni, diced beef in a lively, muscular red sauce similar to Axum's version of tshebie derho. But the zebhie doro here was smooth, buttery, and gentle, made with tomatoes instead of tomato paste. Allicha beggee was a mild, Irish-reminiscent lamb stew with potatoes and carrots and just a waft of curry spices. Among the side dishes, the spinach was outstanding, given tang and lusciousness by peeled tomatoes instead of vinegar. The lentil puree was marvelous, too, richly curried like good tandoori-house dal. The kitchen includes a little yogurt in the array of sides -- it's more effective than water at quenching cayenne-fires.

The tej ($4/$6.50/$18) was pretty good, and New Eritrea also offers the option of 23-ounce bottles of the Ivory Coast's Mamba ($5), a malt liquor mellow enough to pass for beer. In addition, the restaurant offers desserts, but we never got that far. New Eritrea's own food was just too exciting for us to save any room for one more tiramisu.

We're sorry the Upper Haight's candidate stumbled, but a mile in either direction are the lands of milk and honey. Yes, that's on the Eritrean beverage lists, too.

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