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An NYC Ethiopian Food Roundup

May I offer comment on the aesthetic supremacy of Ethiopian food? Reminded of its ascendent deliciousness while visiting Jan Bonus, one of FWG's Legal Affairs Reporters, in Boston, who lives behind the best Ethiopian joint I've been to (Fasika), I've been serially sampling Ethiopian offerings in New York.

Out of step with most cheap, ethnic food phenomena in the City, these restaurants are located in Manhattan rather than Brooklyn or Queens. To put it bluntly, I like to eat weird shit (by American standards): the dish I'm using as a baseline for comparison between restaurants is kitfo, which is a butter-logged bowl of raw ground beef spiced with some primal, hot East African curry. (They dump it out onto a "plate" of injera, a mildly sour, unleavened teff-flour pizza from which you sop up bits and pieces with other, ripped pieces of injera.) Since Boston's Fasika is my gold standard, and that restaurant offers Special Kitfo, which intermixes the beef with ayeb (also iab), a tangy, hot Ethiopian cottage cheese, I ask each New York contender to replicate that unkosher confection.

The ayeb has been hard to find, but so far, so, so good. Neatly, I've visited three restaurants and they've increased in order of yumminess: Meskerem in Midtown (there is also a West Village location), the downtown Awash (there is also a sub-Harlem location), and Ghenet in SoHo.

Meskerem, while good, and probably the most well known Ethiopian chain in New York, strikes me as the blandest of the bunch. For those with sensitive palates, this isn't saying much, as Ethiopian cuisine is unspeakably spicy, both in terms of raw hotness (if you're not careful) and breadth of seasoning. But the place is lively and friendly, and its comparative tameness might work in favor of those with less intrepid palates. No ayeb on the menu at all.

In terms of decor and feel, Meskerem is typical Hell's Kitchen middlebrow. But Awash, located on what I call the Korma Mile -- a strip of nearly identical Indian and Bangladeshi crapoleums on 6th between 1st and 2nd Avenues -- protests its location by aspiring to an unnecessary hipness. Last Friday night featured a noodly, multiracial jazz/funk trio, which I would have gladly traded in for better service. The kitfo had a deeper, more articulate flavor than Meskerem's. I found the house tej, Ethiopian mead which all of these restaurants serve, to be unmemorable (as is Addis, the impotent Ethiopian lager; stick with the stouts). But then, that's been my typical experience. Like cigars, mead is something I've always wanted to enjoy, but could never quite. As with Meskerem, an inquiry after ayeb was met with a quick, almost ashamed no.

Ghenet, located on Mulberry Street in SoHo, takes Awash's chic lead to a less pretentious place. The digs are every bit as stylish, but there's no band or unnecessary filigree and the clientele has a real City feel -- Ethiopian yuppies, jubilant Eurotrash, two old white hippies trading their cellphone and baby over an ashy pool of lentils. Here is where I finally found ayeb, our beautiful waitress (Ethiopians and Eritreans are easily some of the best-looking people in the world) acknowledging the wisdom of the kitfo+ayeb combination and producing it in spite of ayeb's absence from the menu.

We started with some appetizers, toasted injera chips served with an Ethiopian approximation of hummus, and some punchy minced-meat sambusa, which are the East African version of Indian samosas. Then came the kitfo, a palpitating bowl of deep-red raw meat accompanied by an earthenware dish of pepper-dusted ayeb. Yeah, baby! It wasn't exactly Fasika, as they use a manna-like mitmita to spice their kitfo and ayeb that Ghenet didn't muster, but it was the best I've had in New York. Simple but completely decadent, and profoundly luscious, I ate everything including the injera plate.

Stay tuned, as the Heart Attack Gourmand will be making the following stops on his way to the CICU:

  • Ethiopian Restaurant - 3161 Broadway , New York, NY , 212-749-4449
  • Finfinae Ethiopian Restaurant - 710 Amsterdam Avenue , New York, NY , 212-866-4868
  • Ghion Ethiopian Restaurant - 668 Amsterdam Avenue ,New York, NY, 212-875-8722
  • Gishen Cafe - 2150 5th Avenue , New York, NY, 212-283-7699
  • Massawa - 1239 Amsterdam Avenue (121st Street), (212) 663-0505
  • Nile Ethiopian Restaurant - 103 W. 77th Street , New York, NY, 212-580-3232
  • Queen of Sheba - 650 10th Avenue, New York, NY (45th / 46th Street) 212-397-0610
  • Sheba Restaurant - 905 First Avenue. New York, NY 10022 212-752-7222
  • Selam Cafe Ethiopian Restaurant - 3161 Broadway, New York, NY, 212-749-4449

Update: The Ethiopian language is frighteningly similar to Ewok. Fitfit, mitmita, berbere, Yub Nub. It's all good.

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