Letena

Letena, Washington D.C.

Letena, Washington D.C.

Clove Iced Tea, Letena, Washington D.C.Sometimes you can get the sense of the quality of an eating establishment from very subtle clues, either be it online photos, the online reviews, or an instinctive reaction in finding out about its existence. This was my reaction when I read the reviews for an online offer for Letena.  What made it more interesting was that it was located in the heart of bustling Columbia Heights, an area that has gone through some serious gentrification, and away from the usual Ethiopian restaurant locations like U St. N.W. and Silver Spring.  Looking for its location was confusing since it was situated on the side of a large commercial block and not its listed address. Walking into the high-ceiling space, I was immediately impressed by the traditional decor set with a modern tone, and the well-furnished dining area that belies its self-service format. That peaked my anticipation as I looked through the menu that was easy to navigate, as I sipped on House Iced Tea that lured me with its exotic clove note, lemon tang, and a bare sweetness, just like how I like it.

Vegetable Sampler, Letena, Washington D.C.

My friend and I decided to go with the Vegetable Sampler since I wanted to savor an array of cooked and raw vegetable dishes, which this East African cuisine is known for.  For the cooked ones, we started with Fasolia. It is greenbeans and carrots cooked with some onions. The vegetables were well but not overly cooked, tasting properly seasoned, sweet from the onions, slightly pungent from garlic (a bit more would be perfect), and a slightly tanginess that lifted each bite. Gomen is sautéed collard greens that I have tasted in many establishment of this cuisine.  It was surprisingly more bitter than I expected and I was definitely craving for more garlic despite the presence of some onion.  Shiro is a chickpea puree stew that was quite thick and dense. It had a smokey note that added interest to the spiciness that was brought by some traditional seasoning, and it made up for the texture that most Americans find challenging. The last cooked one was Carrot Wot which is shredded carrot exuding its natural sweetness, made subtly rich by the use of butter, and spicy from its stewing with berbere pepper spice. With such good cooking, differentiated flavors and seasoning,  I was looking forward to the uncooked salads.

Beet and Potato Salad, Letena Salad, Letena, Washington D.C.The Beet and Potato Salad arrived looking like a plate of jewels. The beets were not too mineral-like but they tasted naturally sweet which was tempered by the pieces of boiled potato, all unified by a house sauce that tasted tempting. Its partner at the table was Letena Salad. One bite into it sent many happy notes to the tongue and mouth for its incredible flavors and textural combinations, as well as a note of healthiness. The broccoli pieces retained some good crunch despite being steamed (must be a quick one), and the avocado was gloriously ripe while it added its luxurious mouthfeel to the whole bite. Furthermore, pieces of onion provided some sweet crunch to the whole mix. Undoubtedly, these two cold salads were winners for us and high on my list.

Chef's Signature Tibs, Mushroom Dulet, Letena, Washington D.C.

The cuisine is also known for its beef dishes, for which I ordered the Chef’s Signature Tibs. The large platter arrived with pieces still sizzling from the pan wafting its tempting smell.  One bite into the first piece confirmed its visual and olfactory appeal. The pieces were a tender cut that retained its moisture in each morsel, smelling and tasting of the high-heat pan sear that takes beef to the heavens. There was a taste of incredible umami savoriness that hinted at a tinge of soy sauce that made each bite irresistible, which was later confirmed by the owner – what a great move. The side of Mushroom Dulot was the right choice. It’s “meatiness” was enriched with some butter, smokey berbera, spicy jalapeño, and had a tinge of tang that made each bite irresistible – thanks to the chef’s recommendation of this dish.

Red and Yellow Lentils, Letena, Washington D.C.The kitchen brought out a samples of other dishes for me to try. Yemisir Wot are red lentils that have been stewed in the Ethiopian ubiquitous berbera sauce.  The lentils were cooked until barely together that tasted both spicy and slightly sweet, with a slight tang from the berbera spice.  The yellow lentils, Kik, had a slight granular texture from the nature of lentils but it was fully cooked. They tasted creamy, slightly sweet, and incredibly savory especially being vegan. The side of Ethiopian hot sauce was smokey, tangy and spicy, but the dishes were already skillfully seasoned that it was forgotten by the wayside.

Letena, Washington D.C.

What I appreciate about my experience at Letena is manifold. The decor is visually strikingly fresh yet retains its African touch, making it very inviting for the guest, even though it is more a self-service place (I was graciously served during my visit). The direction of the kitchen is refreshing and health-conscious, with healthier and vegan choices (like the Beet/Potato Salad and Letena Salad), and the cooked dishes exuding less oil than usual – “Letena” means “to your health.” But ultimately, it is the flavors and fresh qualities that wowed me about the dishes. The flavors were traditional and differentiated, tasting well-balanced but with new directions like the soy sauce in the tibs, butter in the carrots and mushrooms, and clove in the iced-tea. This establishment deserves some attention from both Epicureans and the high-density diverse neighborhood. I’m glad I’m one of the discoverers of this new wonderful place.

Letena Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe

Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe - Silver Spring, MD

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.

Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe - Silver Spring, MD

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.

Lesaac Veggie Deluxe - Lesaac Cafe Lesaac Veggie Deluxe - Lesaac CafeHaving 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.

Doro Wat - Lesaac CafeAnother 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.

Ethiopian Fish Gulash - Lesaac Cafe

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.

Ethiopian Meat Omelet - Lesaac CafeWith 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.

Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Askale Cafe

Askale Cafe, Washington DCI’m rather fond of Ethiopian food, and I have had my fair share of this East African cuisine since my arrival in this city 25 years ago for Grad School. Over the years, the DC area has become a destination point for Ethiopian immigrants, and the result is no shortage of restaurants that offer their cuisine. However, I have always had a difficulty deciding which restaurant to visit to do a write-up on since nearly all offer the same dishes on the menu. But when I saw an online coupon for a fairly new establishment in the Brookland neighborhood, a most unexpected place, that performs an Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, I knew that this was the exact place for me to review. With coupon in hand, I paid them a visit recently for this review.

The following series of photographs will describe the various stages of the Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony:

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Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, Askale Cafe, Washington DCEthiopian Coffee Ceremony, Askale Cafe, Washington DCWalking into Askale Cafe, one is immediately enveloped by a cloud of burning incense, smelling rather strong of myrrh and reminding me of being in a Cathedral and evoking the feeling of an Ethiopian Orthodox church. Throughout the ceremony, the Mistress of Ceremony was refilling the burner with some incense powder.

 

 

 

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, Askale Cafe, Washington DCEthiopian Coffee Ceremony, Askale Cafe, Washington DCA earthen pot carrying burning charcoal was later brought in, a sight that I have not seen since my grandmothers were alive more than 30 years ago. Burning embers were removed and placed in the incense urn to keep the incense powder burning throughout the ceremony.  A brass plate was placed on top of the fire, topped with raw coffee beans with a sickle-like brass rake next to it. Notice the light color of the coffee beans.

 

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, Askale Cafe, Washington DCEthiopian Coffee Ceremony, Askale Cafe, Washington DCThe beans were raked over the hot brass plate until it is quite dark in color, but not burnt like in American or French roast. The roasting took quite a bit of time, with the MOC keeping a vigilant eye on the beans and without stopping the raking motion as it got faster as the beans became darker. Once the desired roast was achieved, the beans were removed to cool down on a jute-leaf plate. Notice the popcorn in the background which was used as a palate-cleanser later during the coffee drinking.

 

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, Askale Cafe, Washington DCAs part of the ceremony, all guests were invited to catch a waft of the roasted beans. The smell was beyond the immediate roasting smoke, exuding aromas of enticing roasted coffee beans with their toasted notes and creating an anticipation of its potential liquid form.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, Askale Cafe, Washington DCEthiopian Coffee Ceremony, Askale Cafe, Washington DCOnce cooled, the whole beans were ground finely and poured into a jet-black earthen jar that had been set on the burning coals that had brought some water to a boil.  A wooden stop was used to keep the steam in while the ground coffee was brewing.

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Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, Askale Cafe, Washington DCEthiopian CoffeeWhen the coffee was sufficiently brewed, it was poured into small cups, much like Chinese teacups, in a single stream without any breaks, a symbolism of the continuity of life despite its ups and downs. One sip of the brew was quite a revelation: The hot drink had a full-bodied flavor devoid of the bitterness found in stronger roasts. A certain fruitiness was evident in the rather high acid level on the tongue, pointing to the nature of the bean and the fruit around it, this further emphasized due to the lack of sugar as recommended by the MOC. After adding a bit of sugar, the sourness was more palatable. Not exactly what I expected but I knew it was going to be a different cup, and I was enjoying the whole experience of watching from bean to brew.

Vegetarian Combination, Askale Cafe, Washington DCOn to the food. We ordered the vegetarian platter listed as Ethio-Mix. From top left clockwise: Gomen – collard greens cooked with some garlic and spices that enhanced the dark-nature of this green, lightened by a touch of vinegar; Cabbage and Carrots – this mixture was cooked with turmeric without turning to mush, and the natural sweet notes were shining through with the cabbage and more so with the so-sweet carrot; Red Lentils – this legume was quite a hit with the lentils cooked until soft and tasting full-flavored and slightly sweet; Yellow Lentils – this legume was not as tasty as the previous side but I appreciated the mild flavors and its mealy texture. Overall, this was a successful vegetarian/vegan combination that was wiped clean off the platter that they were served in.

Azawe Tibs, Askale Cafe, Washington DCInjera Bread, Askale Cafe, Washington DCFor the meat, we ordered Awaze Tibs. Strips of beef were cooked with garlic, onions, tomato, and fresh ginger along with some spices that made the meat bits very flavorful and a bit smokey from the condiments. The ginger added a fresh flavor, the fresh tomato a bit of sweetness and acidity to lighten the beef, and the slices of jalapeño the vegetal spice kick. The meat was a tad firm but I didn’t expect it to be smooth as butter either, and the whole mix was a hit for me and my companion. The fermented sourdough spongy Injera bread tasted light, fresh, and the right amount of sourness to be the perfect vehicle for all the vegetables, legumes, and meaty pieces. The customary use of hands in eating the dishes added to the satisfactory meal experience.

 

Askale Cafe, Washington DCWell this was the experience that I was looking for in order to write this blog. The coffee ceremony was not only charming but it was a cultural experience that was both revelatory and unique. The cup of java was not exactly what one would expect due to his or her conditioning, but the flavor was aromatic and amazingly, there was no hint of bitterness on my tongue on the drive home. Still lingering on my taste buds were also the vegetable and beef dishes that my companion and I enjoyed for lunch, with the wonderful flavors and well-prepared dishes having a lasting impression on my mind. Yes, the service is a tad slow since it is a family run place, but the culinary experience was well-compensated by the quality of cooking and the personable treatment by the husband-and-wife team. I can’t wait for their liquor license to be approved soon and for this cafe to turn into a proper restaurant. Once the ball gets rolling in that area, I’m sure it will be a hit in the neighborhood.