Tue 6 Oct 2009
Yeah…that last one hadn’t really crossed our minds, either, until we received an invitation to check out the new “Gondar Fine Dining” concept upstairs at Almaz on U Street. It came from someone Mike has worked with professionally, so we were doubly intrigued to see just what Ethiopian Fine Dining looked like. Now we’re the first to admit our relative novice status when it comes to Ethiopian, so we invited a couple of friends who have significantly more experience with the cuisine.
We all arrived separately at Almaz around 6:30 on a Monday night, not sure exactly what we were in for. We headed upstairs to a space that was set up to accommodate about two dozen diners at a couple of regular tables and a handful of mesobs, traditional Ethiopian woven baskets that are used as tables. Jabriel Ballentine, the host and organizer of the Gondar experience, was there to greet each of us and show us to our table in the center of the room. As he seated us, he explained that the purpose of Gondar was to provide a “unique experience among Washington’s Ethiopian restaurants” while still holding onto the feeling of being an honored guest in our hosts’ home. To that end, we would be served four courses – appetizer, salad, entrees and dessert – as well as a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
We were given a choice of three meals: meat, seafood, or vegetarian. At first we were all prepared to order separately, but our server was kind enough to warn us about the generous portion sizes. We still wanted to experience as many different dishes as possible, so we opted for one of each. In reality, each platter offers enough food for two people to share.
An assemblage of Ethiopian specialties – both well-known and rarely seen – in a formal dining environment after the jump.
Jabriel Ballentine’s vision of Gondar is a place where people can come for dates and special occasions – something more than the usual Ethiopian experience in DC. It’s a novel concept for Ethiopian, but you see it in almost every other cuisine around town: upscale French restaurants alongside laid-back bistros; high-end Italian dining rooms coexisting with red-sauce joints; traditional Japanese establishments as well as neighborhood sushi bars. And by offering a more formal meal from beginning to end, Gondar seeks to truly recreate Ethiopian hospitality in a restaurant setting.
We took it all in as we got ready for our meal. The exposed brick walls are decorated with paintings that depict a variety of traditional Ethiopian subjects including social scenes and inspirational leaders. A stage at the rear of the room was set up for the traditional coffee ceremony. We all noted the lack of music; when we mentioned it to Jabriel, he told us it was a conscious decision – the quiet space welcomes conversation, but it also subtly encourages you to use your inside voice so as not to disturb your neighbors.
Once we had settled in and placed our order, our experience began in earnest. Ballentine came to each of us in turn with a small pitcher and a dry towel, pouring water over our hands in the same way a host would wash the hands of his or her guests before dinner. We agreed that we’d love to see this tradition put into place at all Ethiopian restaurants – you’re going to be eating with those hands, after all.
No sooner had we toweled off than the first courses arrived – beef and vegetarian sambusas and slightly spicy buticha. Sambusas are kin to samosas, ravioli, dumplings and the other filled pockets of dough that can be found in just about every cuisine from Europe and Northern Africa through the Middle East to Asia. Buticha is best understood as the Ethiopian version of hummus, combining chick pea flour, spices, onion and peppers and served with a soft pita bread for dipping. We shared the dishes around and the general consensus was that the buticha was the winner of the group. We would have gladly dug into a second helping…but that was before the main courses arrived.
As it turned out, we had far more food than we needed – additional buticha would have made it even harder for us to do justice to the meal we received. After our appetizers, we were served a basic green salad in a tangy house dressing that reminded us of bottled Italian. Of all the food we were served, these salads were probably the most skip-able.
But then it was time for the main event. Two big baskets of injera bread were placed in the middle of the table as Ballentine and another server brought two small tables over – an indication of just how much food we had coming our way. Another piece of injera was unrolled on each of our plates, providing a base on which each dish would be served before we could dig in. The traditional Ethiopian bread is made by hand each day by one of the restaurant’s employees and brought to the restaurant for that evening’s service.
The dishes we were served included:
Meat: Tibs W0t (mild beef stew in red pepper sauce), Doro Wot (spicy dark meat chicken, including the leg, and boiled egg), Yebeg Alicha (a spicy lamb stew)
Seafood: Asa (fried whole croaker), Veggie Kitfo (a version of the traditional dish that uses ground tuna in place of beef), Shrimp Tibs (a peppery dish created especially for the Gondar menu)
Vegetarian: Misir Wot (a spicy lentil dish we were fighting over), Kik Alich (split peas cooked in turmeric), Atikilt Wot (spiced green beans and carrots)
We all shared everything, and to our untrained palates there was plenty of heat and some really enjoyable flavors. The misir wot, yebeg alicha and the veggie kitfo were all standout dishes, though the atikilt wot and asa weren’t quite as popular at our table.
We made a tactical error when our servers came by to inquire about what we enjoyed most: we answered. In short order, we found ourselves facing another helping of each of our favorite dishes. Next time, we’ll know to keep quiet – or offer our compliments with an apology that we’re too full for seconds.
The meal concluded with baklava (we didn’t think it was a traditional Ethiopian dessert, but we weren’t about to complain) and a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, complete with popping corn. Ballentine guided us through the ceremony, informing us that it’s tradition for a host to serve at least three cups of coffee to his guests. At Gondar, they take you through three cups, but they offer a little flexibility on that third cup in recognition of your need to sleep at some point post-dinner – you need only sip it to receive the blessing it confers.
At a cost of $35 per person before beverage, tax and tip, the special multi-course meal is a unique way to experience the customs and cuisine of Ethiopia. The Gondar Fine Dining option is available at Almaz Tuesday through Saturday each week, and reservations are required (as are jackets for men). Seatings are between 6:30 and 7:30 each night, as the full meal from hand-washing to coffee lasts three hours or more. To make reservations, call (202) 905-2057 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.