Asmara Ethiopian Cusine
Ethiopian Restaurant for Groups and Under $15By Veena Thomas
739 Massachusetts Ave.
Arriving at Asmara, an Ethiopian restaurant about 20 minutes away from campus, shortly before 7 p.m. on a recent Friday night, I was startled to find the entire restaurant empty, save for the owners. I almost heeded the old adage that an empty restaurant is never a good sign, but finally decided that after trekking out to Central Square, I might as well eat there anyway. I was certainly glad that I did.
Asmara is an unassuming restaurant, easily passed by without a second glance, which is probably why the owner seated us by the window in full view of pedestrians strolling by on the sidewalk. The modest decor consists of African handicrafts adorning the walls. The setup is certainly intriguing, far from a typical restaurant. People are seated at one of several round wicker tables, about two feet across, each resembling an overturned basket topped with a very shallow basket. Two sturdy coffee tables flank each main table to provide a stable place for drinks.
The owner was attentive (probably because we were the only ones there), recommending dishes to us at our request and explaining a little about the cuisine. Ethiopian stews, called wot, can be prepared one of two ways. A “key wot” incorporates a red pepper berbere paste, while the “alit’cha wot” does not. Stews are served communal-style on large pieces of bread called injera, which is torn up and used to scoop up the food. Utensils are provided only by request at Asmara. Rather than each person ordering separately, each party orders dishes for the entire table.
The waitress brought out a large plate topped with overlapping pieces of injera almost a foot in diameter. On top of the injera sat two steel dishes filled with stew, which she promptly emptied directly onto the bread. Eating the injera was an experience in itself. While it could have been simply a vehicle for scooping up the stews, I enjoyed eating it on its own also. Lighter than a pancake, the sour-salty bread was reminiscent of Indian dosa. The beegeeh mloukhiya ($12.95), lamb with red pepper sauce and pieces of jute plant, was thick enough to sit atop the injera without running. When questioned about the red pepper sauce, the owner had explained that it was more for taste than merely a paste used to add heat. Indeed, the red pepper sauce added extraordinary flavor and complexity to the dish. The spiciness produced by the paste seemed to fill the mouth rather than just burn the tongue. The lamb was very tender, though it tended to have pieces of bone in it. While initially I was skeptical of the jute plant in the dish, as jute is commonly used to make rope, my fears proved unfounded as I didn’t even notice it. The alit’cha fitfit ($11.95), a beef stew, was prepared without the Berbere red pepper paste. Since it was more watery than the lamb stew, torn-up pieces of injera had been added to the dish to sop up the gravy and allow it to sit on top of the injera without running. Though it was very good also, it lacked the distinctive red pepper flavor that I preferred.
Though the portions initially looked small, the injera tends to be filling, as one consumes a lot of it over the course of the meal. We couldn’t quite finish everything. Still, we decided to sample the hazelnut ice cream for dessert. The ice cream was excellent, studded with pieces of hazelnut and topped with three raspberries. More icy than creamy, it was reminiscent of a sorbet. Overall, it was a nice finish to a good meal. However, I wish I had known the cost ($6.95) before ordering it, as it was certainly overpriced.
Within thirty minutes of our arrival at the restaurant, it had filled to capacity. Would-be diners soon lined the entrance and spilled out onto the sidewalk. Yet our server seemed in no hurry to give us the bill-- we had to ask for it. The owners expect people to do more than just eat; patrons should relax, enjoy good food, and catch up with their friends or family. Still, it looked like there were only two or three people waiting on the entire restaurant, and the lack of prompt service may frustrate some.
Asmara isn’t really a first-date type restaurant; sharing a communal meal on one plate, eating with your hands, and bumping knees around a small table makes for an intimate dining experience. It’s the type of restaurant to which you would bring your family or friends so close they’ve become family. I liked the restaurant so much I decided to bring my parents there for lunch when they came up for Family Weekend. My mom proudly told the waiter, “My daughter was just here last night. She’s writing up a review of your restaurant for the paper,” thus blowing my cover. (Thanks, Mom.)
Perhaps that’s why the food was even better the second time around. I didn’t know the beegeeh mloukhiya could be enhanced, but somehow it was an improvement over the previous night. In addition, we ordered the fluy tibsy-liya tibs ($11.75), tenderloin tips in a special sauce that the owner informed us was flavored with 23 different herbs. Between the many herbs and the red pepper paste, this dish was even more complex and delicious than the lamb. The alit’cha ahmilt ($11.95), a vegetable stew, was good though nondescript.
My parents liked Asmara as much as I did. My recommendations: bring your family or a good friend, order a key wot each, skip dessert, and have a relaxing, unique meal at under $15 per person. I often find myself dreaming of the lamb stew and tenderloin tips with injera while studying; this restaurant is definitely not to be missed.