Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: An Exceptional Evening of Eating Like an Ethiopian

Ras Dashen
5846 N. Broadway, Chicago
773.506.9601 Website

What I ate: Sambusa (appetizer) with Lentils and with Beef, Injera with Zilzil Alicha, Mushroom Wat, Qosta and Yeqay Tikil Gomen, Ethio Chai

Regrettably, when I hear "Ethiopia" or "Ethiopian food," I can't help but think of images of emaciated children; victims of a brutal famine that prompted the BandAid, LiveAid and USA For Africa ("We Are the World") relief efforts in the mid-1980s.

I haven't seen such photos for several years, so while I'm sure there are many people still suffering in sub-Saharan African, hopefully the efforts of people like Bob Gelfof, Harry Belafonte, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Bono and more made a real life-and-death difference with lasting impact.

And perhaps one day I can enjoy Ethiopian food without such harrowing images coming to mind.

But even if they did, the other night I very much enjoyed an Ethiopian meal at Ras Dashen with my friend Ken.

Though there seem to be a good handful of Ethiopian restaurants in Chicago, I've only eaten at one other--Demera, at Lawrence & Broadway--once, with a couple friends of mine.

That was recent enough to recall the general concept of Ethiopian cuisine but distant enough to forget the specifics.

For my current Chicago Dining World Tour "Sethnic" excursion, I chose Ras Dashen primarly because it was top ranked on Yelp.

When Ken & I arrived at about 8pm on Saturday night the place was rather full and, I would subsquently note, quite diverse in the race, ethnicity and age of its patrons. 

Without a reservation, we were initially seated in the very back at a table seemingly made from bamboo or something akin, with wobbly chairs to match. Not very comfortable for me, and especially Ken who's nearly a foot taller, so we asked to switch to an open, more standard table. But even that was next to the rest rooms in back.

Fortunately, before we even began perusing the menu, the hostess informed us that a table next to the front window had opened up, so we gladly switched again.

All the better to appreciate a nicely-appointed restaurant with appealing artwork on the walls, as well as anyone strolling along Broadway.

Between a helpful explanation on the menu and a helpful waitress, we were (re)introduced to the principal conceit of Ethiopian dining, in which the table's choices of entrees and sides come on an injera in a circular pan.

Injera is best described (at least by me) as a flat, spongy bread, not so unlike--in use, if not texture--a Mexican tortilla or Indian naan.

Before getting to the main course, for an appetizer we got an order of Sambusa = lentil, spinach, shimbera or beef wrapped in pastry and lightly fried. We chose lentil.

Accompanied by a terrific homemade tomato-based dipping sauce, the sambusa was so delicious that we re-upped with another order containing beef.

Having read good things on Yelp about the Honey Wine, I tried to order a glass but was told they were out of it. So I stuck with a Diet Coke. Ken ordered Ethio Chai Tea, of which he said, "I like it a lot and I'm not really a tea person."

To explain our main course, I direct you to the photo below, as well as the next one.

As I mentioned above, the food comes on an injera, which sits on a circular pan.

The biggest-looking portion is Zilzil Alicha = strips of beef cooked in a tasty sauce with onions, garlic and green peppers.

This was listed under Beef Entries, while our other main selection--seen at roughly the 12 o'clock position--was from "Special Vegetarian Entrees" and therefore appropriately called Special Mushroom Wat = mushrooms and special potatoes in a tasty berbere sauce.

We asked what berbere sauce was but didn't really get a clear answer. (According to Wikipedia, berbere is an Ethiopian spice mixture.)

The two other items on the injera were sides that were complimentary accompaniments--chosen from a variety of options--to our "main dishes."

The purple one is Yeqay Tikil Gomen = sweet and sour red cabbage, Ethiopian style. while the green, spinach-looking one is indeed Qosta = spinach cooked with onions, garlic and spices.

In addition to the injera that the food is one, we were served a basket containing several folded injera. These were used to pick up and eat the various foods--either separately or mixed together--not so unlike how I like to use Naan with Indian curry and rice.

It looks a bit strange, and the spongy consistency of the injera makes it unlike anything else I've ever eaten, but everything tasted terrific.

The beef was quite tender and tasty, the mushroom wat had a real kick to it and the spinach and cabbage felt essentially like equal partners, not side dishes.

As you can see from the next picture, we pretty much devoured it all.

We skipped dessert--only one selection sounded authentically Ethiopian--in favor of a jaunt to Julius Meinl, but Ken got a cup of coffee.

Or as descibed in length on the menu: Buna be jebena The coffee plant is endemic to Ethiopia, so coffee has a special place in Ethiopian society. We roast organic, fair trade Ethiopian coffee beans fresh every day in a ceremony repeated daily in Ethiopian households around the world. Be sure to try our traditional Ethiopian coffee, boiled in a clay pot called a jebena over an open flame.

Given how much Ken liked this Ethio Chai Tea at the beginning of the meal, at the end of the meal as he got coffee, I ordered tea--and concur precisely with what he said.

If it wasn't the best tea I've ever tasted, I can't readily recall any better.

All in all, Ras Dashen provided one of the most unique dining experiences of my gastro-ethnic expeditions.

While I have seen numerous similarities in the numerous cultural cuisines I have explored in 2013, Ethiopian food seems completely distinctive. Though I have yet to find and try Sudanese, Kenyan or Somalian restaurants in Chicago, as those countries surround Ethiopia and could theoretically cook in a similar style.

The food at Ras Dashen was quite different, as was the way of consuming it, but everything was delicious, and the ambiance--once we were moved from next to the bathrooms--was quite welcoming.

And, as I hope is now true for the vast majority--if not all--residents of Ethiopia itself, we weren't left hungry.

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