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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.