Food Column: Zeni Ethiopian

Walking in amongst woven stools and opulent rugs flocked around colorful knee-length tables, what appears to be a richly decorated living room is actually the dining space for Zeni Ethiopian. Instead of conforming to the hyper-modern feel that most restaurants are converging towards nowadays, the restaurant embraces the roots of its culture, eschewing modern-day standards of setting in favor of a brighter and more vibrant alternative—guests are encouraged to sit on the floor around a communal pan of food and drink, making for a much more intimate setting.

Not only does Zeni Ethiopian take its presentation and procedure of meals directly from its culture, but the dishes themselves have a glimmer of the Ethiopian culture as well. Injera, a pancake-like food, is perhaps one of the most versatile foods around: it acts as a dining utensil, a staple dish of the meal, and the plate of the dish as well. Made with teff flour, a type of grain specific to eastern Africa, the flatbread is made with sourdough, introducing a particular zest to the dish. The sourdough forms tiny air bubbles which leave the injera while cooking, giving the injera a spongy appearance and a distinctly fluffy texture.

I ordered the Fir Fir, spiced meat roasted in berbere sauce and scrambled with injera in herb butter. On the side was the Atakilit Wot, Zeni’s interpretation of stewed vegetables, and spiced Ethiopian tea. Interestingly enough, the dishes all came served on one massive pan, shared by all, on top of a expanse of injera layered on top of the pan, which sopped up the excess juices of the main courses. This alternative style of dining is Zeni’s hidden ace.

Among one of the spiciest cuisines in the African continent, Ethiopian cuisine is well known for its prodigious employment of hot peppers and various spices in its dishes. The fir fir loyally sticks to this reputation, having been stewed in berbere sauce, which is an amalgam of various spices such as chili peppers, garlic, basil, and fenugreek, and a key element in Ethiopian cuisine. The sauce, which was very good on its own, was somewhat overshadowed by the herbed butter, which pervaded the flavor of the dish with the smoothness of butter, to the extent that it was at times overpowering. Either luckily or by design, however, the sourdough element of the injera proved to be the foil to this shortcoming, making the dish thoroughly enjoyable in the end. The light red chunks of meat were tender and dripping with berbere sauce, which were picked up with the hands by way of pieces of injera, making each bite like a miniature and self made sandwich.

Creamy and sweet carrots, potatoes and greens comprise the atakilit wot, which was cooked to the enviable balance where the individual vegetables had just started to fall apart and mingle with the flavors of the stew, but hadn’t quite lost their structure yet. The tea, looking like liquid amber, was heavily scented with floaty notes of cinnamon and cardamom.

Zeni Ethiopian is one of those places where you leave after the night is over and immediately start to think about coming back—the experience of sitting down on tiny little stools on the floor and eating off of a massive communal plate which is also part of the dish is so unusual and enjoyable that it makes you rethink what a restaurant can be like.

 

5/5 forks

Pros:

Intriguing alternative style of dining

Gigantic portions

Inexpensive

Cons:

Slow service

Overpoweringly buttery beef

Gets crowded during dinnertime