GRAZING: Ethiopian Rhapsody
Feedel Bistro — something to sing about
My first taste of Ethiopian food was at a restaurant in Virginia-Highland around 1987. The best Ethiopian food I’ve ever tasted was last week at Feedel Bistro on Briarcliff Road. It was an elegant plate of a cuisine that eerily reminded me, as it did 30 years ago, that acts of beauty are often shadowed by tragedy and, sometimes, outright evil. Food, in short, has important cultural resonance in many ways in Ethiopia.
As it happens, half the Ethiopian story — the beautiful part — is described in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the recent biopic of Freddie Mercury and the band Queen. On June 13, 1985, Queen took part in a trans-Atlantic concert, “Live Aid,” to raise money for famine-struck Ethiopia, where an estimated one million people had starved to death or become refugees. Queen performed a 21-minute set that is frequently called the best rock performance of all time. Forty percent of the globe’s population watched the televised concert, which raised $121 million. That was beauty overtaking tragedy … briefly.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” does not explain that, as it turned out, Ethiopia’s military dictator used much of the $121 million to purchase weapons from Russia to crush the country’s several civil rebellions. The government had executed and resettled hundreds of thousands of people for political reasons, virtually causing the famine itself. Most food shipped to Ethiopia rotted in cargo holders. If you lived through that time, you remember the faces of dying infants. That was evil breaking hearts.
Many Ethiopians left the country well before the severe famine to escape the oppressive government and, eventually, restaurants began to appear in large American cities. Unfortunately, the notion of a restaurant operated by refugees from a famine prompted a lot of cruel jokes. I admit that I enraged several restaurant owners by referring to the ubiquitous injera — the spongy, porous bread with which you pick up Ethiopian food — as “Dr. Scholl’s bread.” I also admit that I’m still not very fond of the bread.
When I lunched at Feedel last week with three friends, I was surprised to find that it is in a strip center that includes another Ethiopian restaurant, Bahel, immediately next door. It is also virtually across the street from Desta, widely regarded as the best Ethiopian restaurant in the city. I was motivated to dine here because critic Christiane Lauterbach named it one of the 10 best restaurants to open in 2018 in her newsletter, “Knife & Fork.” Not long after we were seated, I mentioned this to the server, who turned out to be one of the owners, Tamar Telahun. She knew nothing of the honor, and she photocopied the issue while we looked around and perused the menu.
Feedel actually brands itself as Ethiopian and Eritrean. Ms. Telahun was born in Ethiopia and migrated here when she was 13. Her parents are from Eritrea, which borders the Red Sea on the east and Ethiopia on the south. Its history is fascinating, including modern-era stories of Italian occupation, Ethiopian annexation, and secession. Ms. Telahun’s mother, in her 80s, shows up in the kitchen unpredictably to enforce authenticity, so her influence naturally requires the Eritrean label. I did do some research about Eritrean cuisine, and I expected to find seafood on the menu. It’s popular in Eritrea because of its coastal location. I also learned that the Italian occupation brought pasta to the region. Neither were on the menu (but I’ve never seen pasta on an Ethiopian menu, either).
I’m not complaining. The clearest example of the Eritrean motherly influence is “Mom’s Special Gomen Be’Siga,” which two of us ordered (after greed ruled out the usual sharing at the Ethiopian table). I’ve seriously never tasted anything like it. The chopped collards are cooked in a seasoned buttery sauce with cubes of lamb. Yes, that’s lamb and butter instead of the hog jowls your Southern mama used! The greens are mildly spicy, perhaps from a small dose of the widely used blend of chilies and mysterious spices called berbere. Like everything else, the collards were served over a strip of injera. My problem with plucking every bite of food with the gut-expanding bread is that I inevitably get full before I want to. Although the greens looked like a relatively small portion, I thus left a good bit behind. My friend who asked for a fork stripped the foundational injera bare.
We also sampled classic lega tibs. The menu describes it this way: “Cubes of tender pieces of lamb or beef cooked with onions, garlic, tomatoes, jalapeños finished with rosemary and seasoned butter (without berbere/ spicy sauce).” My friend chose the lamb. What was most astonishing to me was the pool of butter and the tomatoes that provided some tang in the absence of the berbere. My third friend ordered a plate of six vegetables, among them the collards, lentils, and a split-pea stew. The menu specifies it is meant for one person. And so it was. Other dishes include beef tartare; the collards with a strong dose of berbere; ribeye; and beef tartare. There are vegetarian options, including classic shiro, a stew of pureed split peas and chickpeas. Everything is plated colorfully and beautifully.
Feedel’s décor is mainly wood and stone, but it pops with jewel tones and huge portraits of costumed African women. During lunch, it’s brightly lit by large windows, but I’m betting it glows at night. There’s a full bar. I should mention that the owners have operated a coffeehouse/bar/hookah lounge with the perfect name of Therapy for seven years in the same strip center. It has a mainly American menu, although it also serves a few Italian dishes, but with no discernible Eritrean influence. I haven’t tried the food, but I did sample a competent espresso macchiato there before my friends arrived for lunch. Italians did make coffee a popular beverage during their occupation.
I can’t get Feedel’s food out of my mind, and I urge you to join my obsession. The imaginative restaurant really is a reflection of the beauty of an ancient culture whose people have endured tragedy in many forms.
I know everyone loves Ponce City Market, but one thing is predictable about the place: The quality of the food is never predictable. I recently visited one of the first venues to open there in 2015, W.H. Stiles Fish Camp. It’s operated by the Star Provisions people — they also own Bacchanalia — and it was shockingly mediocre. We got cold corn muffins, soupy shrimp and grits, a bisque with lobster bits the size of fish roe, and “crispy calamari” that were anything but crispy. Better but seriously average choices were a dense crab cake served with cole slaw and fries; a thick, spicy clam chowder; and the ubiquitous wedge of iceberg lettuce with blue cheese dressing, bacon, tomatoes, and fried shallots. My unconscious made the ultimate comment: I bought a big oatmeal cookie to go and left it on the table. You may want to stick to the oyster bar and po’ boys, which other foodie friends tell me are quite reliable…
Meanwhile, as it happens, I also recently hit the Crawfish Shack on Buford Highway. I used to love the place, which has received lots of national attention for its Cajun seafood prepared with Vietnamese panache. I went frequently and then had two really bad experiences in a row. The place became grimy, and a friend was served a rank softshell crab that looked like it had been stepped on. Literally. I assumed the owner was putting most of his effort into Bon Ton, a Midtown spot where he’s a co-owner. Nonetheless, since crawfish season supposedly began this month, I thought it was time to revisit for a po’ boy. I’m happy to report the place is looking much better, and the fresh, fried crawfish were flawless.
NOTE: I mentioned “Knife & Fork” above, as I did in another recent column. The monthly newsletter published by the very French Ms. Lauterbach, remains our city’s best source for quirky restaurant news and reviews. To subscribe, call 404-378-2775.
Feedel Bistro, 3125 Briarcliff Road, 404-963-2905, feedelbistro.com
Therapy Lounge, 3145 Briarcliff Road, 404-320-2040, therapyloungeatl.com
W.H. Stiles Fish Camp, 675 Ponce de Leon Ave. N.E., 678-235-3929, www.starprovisions.com/whstilesfish-camp
Crawfish Shack Seafood, 4337 Buford Hwy NE #170, 404=329-1610, www.crawfishshackseafood.com