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

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.

Etete

Living in Washington DC area has a great perk – an incredible variety of ethnic restaurants from far-flung regions of the world within reach of any resident.  One cuisine that has thrived in this metropolis is Ethiopian which first made its presence known in the Adams Morgan restaurant row in the late 80’s not long after its community had grown to a rather sizable number.  Since then, many eateries have burgeoned in areas where previously were neglected and dilapidated.  Such area was the U St. NW where in the 90’s crack houses were abound interspersed by bordered-up store fronts and the occasional liquor store.  But where there is disaster, there is opportunity.   Many Ethiopian restaurants have popped-up around the intersection of 9th and U St. NW, and walking down this rather quiet neighborhood, one notices North Africans hanging out on the street and hears the exotic tones from their tongues.  This is where I encountered Etete, one of the several Ethiopian eateries on the same block. Etete

Eating EthiopianEntering in the establishment, the eating area looked rather cramped with a bar and a few tables on the first floor.  There were only a few customers seated which surprised me for a Saturday night.  However, my BFF and I were asked to go upstairs which was filled with diners and the din produced by the hungry mouths.  We were placed next to the stairs in a rather tight area since every table on this level was already taken.  Having had quite a few experiences with this type of food, I knew what to expect.  The basis of the whole meal is a common large platter covered with the exotic tasting sourdough bulgur wheat pancake, Enjera, and topped with different dishes.  Pieces of the bread are torn off and used as the eating utensil to scoop up the different dishes dotting this plain canvas.   For many Americans, eating this delicate pancake dough with the soft textured food poses a textural issue to most uninitiated to it, but my bestie was up to such challenge and is a fan of the cuisine.

.Vegetarian Plate Enjera BreadThe first layer to go on the platter was the Special Vegetarian Combination.  The large plate arrived with a myriad of vegetable dishes on the periphery of the sourdough pancake.  Gomen is collard greens cooked with onion, green pepper, garlic and ginger; Tekil Gomen is cabbage and carrot cooked with onion, garlic and jalapeño pepper; Yekik Alicha is a delicately spiced cooked split pea dip served cold; Yemisir Kik Wat is red split lentils cooked with onions and herbs, spiced with the fiery Ethiopian red pepper Berbere sauce; Yeataklit Wat is carrot, potato, and onion sauteed with garlic, ginger, and tomato sauce; and a salad consisting of raw tomato, onion, and jalapeño pepper.  I enjoyed the different flavors, textures, and temperatures in each vegetable dish, all exuding their unique flavors from the simple yet tasteful to the more complex tasting ones.  The fresh tasting Enjera was light and spongy with a slight sour hint as a result of the dough fermentation before being cooked, and it was the perfect blank canvas to absorb all the different flavors from the various sauces and dips.  The only ho-hum moment was the raw tomato salad with its not-so-ripe/-sweet chunks that was indicative of the unseasonality of this fruit vegetable.  A slight up-charge is added for the similar combination but with the addition of a fried fish on the side, which seems to be a popular order looking around the dining room.

Doro WatI would have been satisfied with the vegetable dishes, but this review would be incomplete without mentioning the meat dishes.  The most recognizable and mentioned dish is Doro Wat.  Chicken legs have been cooked in onion, garlic, ginger, ground hot pepper (berbere) , and spiced butter sauce, served along with hard-boiled eggs.  The chicken leg was cooked tender, tasting of all the spices from the long stewing process.  The sauce tasted complex with a slight sweetness to compensate for the spicy berbere in the sauce that had a slight smokey note much like smoked paprika.  The heat was more complex and had more personality than just a hot pepper, which made the dish appealing and making one want more.  The boiled egg was obligatory but a bit perfunctory in my opinion.   Despite the tasty quality of the dish, I was disappointed that all that was served was just a drumstick and an egg, all for $16.  A bit more generous portion would have made this order very satisfactory.

.Yeawaz Tibs The next meat order was definitely not short in quantity, which made up for the above dish’s shortcoming.  Yeawaz Tibs consisted of beef tibs cooked in a  ground hot pepper sauce (Awaze sauce) with onion, fresh tomato, fresh garlic, and chili.  The pieces of beef were falling apart in the mouth with their quality cuts, devoid of gristle, tasting rich from all the seasoning and spices, spicy, slightly sweet from the tomato, and slightly smokey from the spicy Awaze sauce.   Each bite exuded the perfect amalgamation in the cooking process that pointed to slow long cooking of the meat in that rich sauce.  The pieces were right size making it easy to handle in each parcel created by the Enjera that was moistened and flavored by a sauce thicker than the above chicken dish.  The portion of this order was very generous, and along with its savoriness, I began to pay attention to each beefy bite rather than the meager chicken portion.   I highly recommend this dish as a must order.

EteteEtete serves quality Ethiopian food cooked in the traditional and uncompromising way, and served in a rather contemporaneous environment.  Such cooking was evident in all the various dishes especially in the vegetable combination platter and in the beef tibs dish with the proper seasoning perfect cooking in the vegetables to the deliciously spicy and tender meat pieces of the Yeawaz Tibs.   I would recommend this experience to anyone, especially the novice, to try this cuisine in this uncompromising way.  With such friendly and helpful service, I’m quite sure you will walk away impressed and satisfied from the wonderful dishes. Etete on Urbanspoon