Desta: Modern Ethiopian
New Ethiopian in the Williamsburg Shopping Center
"If you like it, why haven't you eaten it all?" the server demanded.
"I'm full," I said. "It was delicious, but I can't eat all of it." I looked nervously at Wayne, the ultimate plate polisher.
"Tell him," Wayne said to the server. "He needs to hear this."
"I don't see how you say you like it when you haven't eaten it all," she repeated.
I looked at the plates before us. Here and there was a smear of food, some lettuce leaves, some raw hamburger. "We'll take the leftovers home," I said. This seemed to pacify the server and Wayne, too, who will take home an unused butter pat "because you never know."
I'd forgotten that this was a common experience for me in Ethiopian restaurants. Apparently, it's considered insulting if you don't eat everything you order. Our server at Desta (3086 Briarcliff Road, 404-929-0011) was definitely teasing me, but the joke seems inevitable whenever I eat this cuisine.
The ironic thing is that Desta may be serving the most palatable Ethiopian food I've ever tasted. Its chef, Titi, who visited our table, calls her cooking "modern." That means the spices are cut back somewhat, not especially to please the American palate, but to let the flavors of the prime ingredients dominate.
"I only buy the highest-quality meats," she said. "I can season the food with the usual spices if people ask, but I'm more interested in letting the taste of the meats come through."
I'm guessing that's why there are no wat (stewed) dishes on the menu. Instead, the meats are all cooked tibs-style – sautéed, usually with onions and other seasonings.
Or, if you really want to test the quality of the meat, you can order kitfo, basically Ethiopian steak tartare. The kitchen minces rib-eye and, as is traditional, combines it with clarified butter and a red chili spice. In my two meals at Desta, this was my favorite dish. The flavor of the meat is totally complemented by the piquant seasoning, a balance that's unusual in my experience with this dish. It was served with a small mound of aiyb, similar to cottage cheese and capable of cooling the spices for the overly sensitive.
Kitfo, like all other Ethiopian food, is eaten with the right hand, using the sourdough bread, injera, to pick up each mouthful. As I've written many times, I'm not crazy about injera. It has always seemed too heavy to me for its use. Apparently, it's unique to my gastrointestinal system, but a few pieces of the stuff quickly fills me up.
My next favorite dish was one the server insisted we try – fish tibs. Tilapia is not my favorite fish, to say the least, but the treatment here is masterful. The fish is cubed and grilled, almost blackened, served over a uniquely savory blend of onions and peppers. Salad is also on the plate.
We tried two other tibs plates: lamb with gomen (collards) on the side and rib-eye with shiro, a hummuslike concoction made with ground chickpeas.
The most picturesque dish we sampled was the vegetarian combo. All the food here is beautifully presented, but this dish's colors, from bright yellow to green and red, made it especially attractive. The large dish, lined like all others with injera, included three varieties of pureed peas, collards, salad and shredded injera with hot peppers.
Desta, which means "happiness" in Amharic, is located in the Williamsburg Shopping Center in the space formerly occupied by Madras Café. It's surely a sign of our times that a shopping center modeled after the early American architecture of a town in Virginia is now completely occupied by ethnic businesses, including two other Ethiopian restaurants.
Desta's interior is a huge improvement over the earlier tenant's. It's cozy, with booths, comfortable chairs and sleek wall decorations. There's a patio and a market selling Ethiopian specialties, too. The staff of beautiful Ethiopians is friendly and helpful, although we encountered language problems a few times.
Another pleasing aspect of the café is its clientele, a worldly blend, from Ethiopians to Latinos. During our second visit, there was a large table of European students. Go. It's a cool place.
Here and there
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