Apr 27, 2010, 08:55AM

Ethiopian Fare

Dukem ain't the only joint in town. Be sure to check out Pigtown's Elfegne Cafe.

I had Ethiopian food on my first grown-up date. On a sunny afternoon in June of 1997 Lou picked me up in his mom's car and we drove to D.C. to see the museums. We went to Dukem for dinner and I felt doubly sophisticated for eating at an Ethiopian restaurant and I ordered a glass of wine. And they served it to me. Heady stuff for an 18-year-old. Who knows what we ate, but I recall that glass of honey-wine. For years I carried around the memory of it, so sweet, cold and delicious.

When Dukem opened in Baltimore, one of the first things I ordered was a glass of Ethiopian mead and it was disgusting. Too sweet, too viscous. I didn’t even finish it and it’s rare that I ever leave wine in a glass. But I should have known better than to take drink advice from a younger version of myself, whose primary experience with alcohol came from brave experiments in mixing drinks with peach schnapps siphoned out of my mother's paltry liquor cabinet.

Ethiopian food is pretty ideal date fare. It's a good filter; I know right off the bat that I am not entirely compatible with anyone who won't eat it. Combination platters are great for sharing and sparking conversation, and eating with your fingers is fun. For years Dukem has been the only option in Baltimore, but recently, a few other restaurants have opened up and may be thriving.

I went to Elfegne Cafe in Pigtown this past Friday night and loved it. It's BYOB, so bring, as I did, something good to drink and someone fantastically fun to talk to. The restaurant was empty when we got there at 7:30 on a Friday and I think we startled the waitress, who was watching a Lifetime movie on the big screen tv. We chose a seat by the window and pored over the two menus offered, which were, confusingly, different, (and different from the on-line menu) but both mercifully brief. We decided to share a "Half and Half Platter," which the menu describes as being a serving of meat with a choice of three vegetable sides. "Oh no," the waitress said, "It comes with all five vegetables." She said this as though she couldn't fathom how we could be confused on this point.

"Okay," I said, "I'll have a kitfo half and half." Kitfo is raw beef chopped and mixed with herb butter deliciousness and some spices.

"Um," she said with gentle concern, "Have you had kitfo before?"

"No," I said, "But I would like to try it."

"It is, um, do you want it cooked?"

"No thank you. I'd like it raw."

"And I'll have the lamb tibs half and half," said my date. Tibs are cubes of meat sautéed with onions and peppers. We chatted and sipped our beers and laughed at the commercials for upcoming Lifetime movies while we waited for the food to come. During that time, a couple came in for take-out, and two middle-aged Ethiopian men sat by the tv with a bottle of cheap red. In the two hours that we sat there, those were the only other customers we saw.

The food arrived, piled on a slab of house-made injera and was terrific, tastier and better prepared than Dukem. The kitfo had a soft and melting texture, and was salty and savory with a faint, pleasant taste of iron. Elfegne will cook kitfo for you, but I say grow a pair and get it raw. The tibs were delicious. The five vegetable sides: two lentil dishes, yellow split peas, dark greens, and potatoes were well prepared and perfectly spiced. There was a little mound of hot curry powder on a corner of the injera, kind of a dry hot sauce; a nice touch. It was too much heat for me but my date practically hoovered it. Extra injera was plentiful. We lingered over our meal and wound up eating far too much. Injera has a tendency to expand in your stomach, especially when combined with beer, and by the time we waddled back to the car I felt like I'd swallowed a bowling ball. A really, really delicious bowling ball.


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