Tue 15 Sep 2009
When it comes to Ethiopian food, we’re just starting to learn about everything that DC’s countless options have to offer. For a long time, Mike let a bad experience keep him away from an entire cuisine. But a visit to Etete several months ago convinced him that not all Ethiopian food was out to get him, so we decided to check out Dukem before the Air Guitar National Championships at the 9:30 Club last month.
Why Dukem? After Etete, it was the most recommended of the Ethiopian restaurants along 9th and U Streets…we figured all those folks couldn’t be too wrong. Besides – we had Techie Jim visiting us from Kansas City, and we wanted to show him one of DC’s most noteworthy cuisines.
Dukem is described as one of the more “put together” Ethiopian places in Washington, combining a sleek interior with above-average service and a traditional menu that runs the gamut from wat to tibs to kitfo. We’ve only got the one previous experience to compare it to, but the descriptions of the dishes and the server’s enthusiastic recommendations definitely helped us to figure out which dishes best represented Dukem’s cuisine.
The whole kitfo and caboodle after the jump.
We arrived a few minutes late for our reservation (parking was a joy, as always), but thankfully our dining companions were more timely and had staked out a table along the row of windows facing out toward 12th Street. As we walked through the restaurant, past the ornate bar that dominates the center of the space, we were more than a bit curious about the small stage that we passed.
As it turns out, Dukem’s reputation is built on more than just their food. They are known as the destination for traditional Ethiopian music and entertainment, with live shows every night but Tuesday. On Sunday afternoons you can catch a demonstration of the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony (in case Sidamo Coffee & Tea is too out of your way). We weren’t planning to stick around for the show, but we saw several fans who had arrived early to claim their seats for that evening’s performance.
We started off with a round of beverages, paying special attention to the Ethiopian beers (Harar) and the Ethiopian wines. I tried the gouder, a red wine with distinctly spicy and earthy flavors competing for dominance. It was a departure from your average table wine, but not one that I would seek out again anytime soon.
Oh well…we weren’t there for the drinks, we had come for the food. With the help of our server, we decided on a handful of dishes that seemed to cover the gamut of offerings. We knew we wanted to try at least one version of kitfo, the traditional Ethiopian dish of finely chopped beef tartar, so we opted for the supremely spicy ZE!!! kitfo (their spelling direct from the menu). It blended jalapenos and diced onions into the raw beef, and it provided a great kick.
We also ordered up some Dukem special lamb tibs, and we were surprised at how tender the meat was when it arrived. It’s far too easy to overcook small cubes of lamb, but a sure hand in the kitchen kept them chewy and flavorful. Dressed with tomato, onion, rosemary and garlic, they offered a clear reflection of the Mediterranean influences on Ethiopia’s cooking. We also found the tibs to be significantly easier to pick up with our torn hunks of injera, the spongy bread that serves double duty as plate and utensil in Ethiopian cuisine (and the focus of Mike’s irrational aversion), as the chunks provide resistance so you know when you’ve got one firmly within your grasp.
Lest we overload on meats, we rounded out our meal with one of Dukem’s special vegetarian combo platters, paired with a whole fried fish. In our limited experience, we’ve found the artist’s palettes that are Ethiopian veggie platters can be something of a crap shoot. Chances are you’ll find three or four items that are absolutely amazing – dishes you would gladly eat an entire platter of. At Dukem, the spicy lentils, shiro (fried onions with chickpea flour in spicy berbere sauce), potatoes and greens were all snatched up in short order. The tomato-based salad, cabbage, and yellow peas hung around a while longer. But the combination was definitely a draw and a welcome intermission between bites of beef and lamb.
We found the service to be helpful, if a bit confused (and confusing) at times. Some interactions required a few attempts before we were able to get our questions across. Even so, the recommendations we received all satisfied, and we found ourselves pleasantly full for a very reasonable per-person cost.
If you haven’t experienced Ethiopian in Washington, you’re really missing out. It’s one of the most unique dining experiences in the area, and ours is apparently the largest concentration of Ethiopian establishments outside of the homeland. We’ve enjoyed our meals at both Etete and Dukem, and we’re eager to try some more. Any thoughts on where we should go next?