Ethiopian cuisine poses a few challenges on different levels. First, there is a plethora of restaurants serving this fare due to the influx of immigrants from that East African region resulting in a boom of restaurants beginning from the 1980’s. With so many to choose from, it has been a challenge for me to pick a place to write on. The other issue is that Ethiopian food, especially the spongy injera bread, creates a textural challenge for most Americans who tend to steer away from this soft or mushy feel especially when eaten customarily with the bare hand. With this said, I have problems finding enough friends to join me to partake in this type of meal. But last weekend, I managed to corral a couple of die-hard friends for this rare treat.
Downtown Silver Spring, MD has taken a transformation the last few years, and it has become the hub of Ethiopian gastronomic and social life judging by the high number of such establishments dotting its square blocks. When I noticed an online offer for Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe, I knew I couldn’t bypass such a deal especially from an establishment in that area. Walking through its doors, you notice the strong rich colors on the walls, the photo mural on the ceiling and vibrant tile work on the wall, all decorating the booths and tables in the rather narrow shotgun space. I was tempted to sit outside on its sidewalk patio, but with a friend suffering from seasonal allergies, we chose to go inside instead.
Having savored Ethiopian food a number of times over the years, I have got familiar with some of their regular dishes. Cooked vegetables stand out in this cuisine, and we ordered the Lesaac Veggie Deluxe. What arrived was a large platter layered with the sourdough injera bread topped with nine bean and vegetable dishes. The collard greens tasted quite savory and were not too mushy but cooked well. The red beets were a novelty for me since I never encountered them in this cuisine: they were naturally sweet, tasting slightly earthy, and enriched by some butter that took them to another level. The Yellow split peas were well-seasoned and also well-cooked, cooked to a level of doneness without being mushy. The same level of doneness were the red lentils that were mixed with some Berbere chili paste and tasted a bit tangy, which made them interesting. The green beans and carrot were cooked well-done without being too soft and tasted vegetal sweet and garlicky. The salad was really tangy and salted from a vinaigrette made of citrus juice and herbal seasoning, making it a palate cleanser in between bites. The cabbage was soft, naturally sweet and quite garlicky. The green beans were quite mushy, slightly under seasoned and reminded me of lentils. The middle mound of red split peas was a puree seasoned with a smokey spicy concoction. With such variety in offerings, flavors, textures, and seasoning, my dining friends and I were in hog heaven with this dish that tasted the best that I have ever savored, and I could have been perfectly content indulging on this vegetarian platter.
Another recognized dish from my foray into this cuisine is a popular one – Doro Wat. The bowl arrived with a heaping amount of thick sauce covering a lone piece of chicken and boiled egg. One taste of the sauce put everything into perspective. The customary scant piece of chicken with the lone egg always perplexed me with its small portion of protein. But this time, I realized what this dish was really about – the sauce. It tasted smokey and spicy from the Berbere chili powder, rich from butter, and quite sweet from a copious amount of onions. In addition, there was a slight burn after each bite coupled by a mild tanginess from the dried peppers, which made the sauce totally irresistible and reminding me of good Mexican molé sauce. The side of crumbled cheese was interesting since it was devoid of salt or cheese pungency, but it played a minor role of adding more richness and making the spicy sauce milder to the palate. The side of injera bread was the perfect vehicle to mop up all the goodness, which I would have done so if weren’t for the other dishes. Finally, I have savored a damn good version of this famous dish which has revealed its real gastronomic truth to this diner.
For my pescatarian fellow diner, we order Fish Gulash upon the waitress’ recommendation. The large bowl arrived with pieces of fish covered by a rather thick red sauce and studded by bits of jalapeño peppers. The bits of fish were mild tasting and a bit crispy from some frying, covered with a slightly tangy tomato-based sauce made sweet with lots of onions and spiced by the peppers. My fellow diners raved about this dish for its fresh tasting seafood, confirmed as fresh tilapia (surprise!), and the bright tasty sauce that married well with the fish. The side of salad was a bright mix with a tangy vinaigrette that was the perfect companion to this dish. This was definitely a hit with us and I’m looking forward to savoring this new dish again.
With some credit left on the coupon, the waitress suggested an item from the breakfast section – Meat Omelet. The omelet arrived with some toast to complete the meal. The egg mixture was quite savory with pieces of slightly seasoned and tasty beef, mixed with onions, green peppers, and tomato that lent their vegetal sweetness, tanginess, and slight crunch that made each mouthful interesting and comforting. The egg was a bit firmer than the usual French version, but it was nearly greaseless and something that I enjoyed after having eaten egg cooked this way growing up in Asia. This dish would be an order when I’m in the mood for some Ethiopian breakfast.
Finally, I have found an Ethiopian restaurant that I could say really justifies what this Eastern African cuisine is all about. The Veggie platter blew us away with the variety of vegetable dishes with their freshness, flavors, and cooking. The Doro Wat dish was completely revelatory for me with the secret being the sauce, and I waited all these years to savor a version that spoke volumes to me. The Fish Gulash was definitely another hit with its mild sweet fillets covered by a savory bright sauce. For breakfast, I would not hesitate ordering their Meat Omelet that was both comforting and satisfying. With food this good and definitely authentic, judging by the nearly all Ethiopian clientele (interestingly nearly all male, but a cultural norm), this is another new-find and a favorite locale for this cuisine.