Midtown Ethiopian Hot Spot Expands Dining Space For Its Affordable, Delicious Cuisine
Hereís good news in local dining: Dukem #2 Ethiopian Restaurant has very recently opened a delightful second-floor dining room. The oddly shaped downstairs dining space has the advantage still of cramped conviviality, the lovely urban weirdness of exotic food in a corner-bar setting. The new space is more adventuresome and comes across as more authentic. It is strewn, rather haphazardly, with small dining groupings that consist of very low hand-carved backless stools (think kindergarten) surrounding a vividly colored woven wicker basket (mesob) that serves as a dining table. Conventional dining tables are up here, too, and the wood-paneled room is ambitiously decorated with imposing Ethiopian artwork.
Itís fun and pleasant to sit around the mesob, and it helps reinforce the customary communal ethos of an Ethiopian meal. Like a number of second-floor spaces, Dukemís would feel nicer with more people in it--diners can feel conspicuous eating there. Considering how delicious, satisfying, and inexpensive its food is, the new space should be rocking with high spirits in no time.
Eating Ethiopian food, for a Westerner, is by nature a conspicuous activity. Dukemís menu assumes the patron has some previous experience with forkless dining, the ripping of the traditional fermented crÍpelike bread--injera--and the right-handed grabbing with injera of the sauced dishes that have been ladled on top. Combination platters make a certain sense, but the problem with them is that youíre never entirely sure what is what. Itís also very easy to overorder and extremely easy to fill up too fast on deceptively large portions and the spongy bread, a piece of which accompanies every bite.
If ordering seems daunting, know this: You canít really go wrong. Absolutely include the standard kitfo ($9.75), an impeccable, aromatherapeutic version of the classic Ethiopian dish of minced beef tartare mixed with herbal butter, cardamom, and mitmita, a peppery hot spice blend. Kitfo is arousing--it has a way of developing and expanding its flavors in your mouth--and is among the easiest of Ethiopian preparations to manipulate. A more ambitious version is available mixed with homemade cottage cheese ($10.50).
A wot, or stew, is essential, too, and Dukemís doro wot ($12.50), made with a choice of chicken leg or breast meat, is darkly complex and wonderful. We chose, instead of the typical peppery berbere sauce, an application of a potent ginger sauce that luxuriously enveloped the tender chicken. Not so much chicken, really, just shreds of it, a lesson of how Ethiopian cuisine cunningly stretches scant protein into delectable nourishment.
We tried the berbere version of the doro wot in a preparation called fitfit ($12.50), in which slices of shredded injera are layered into the stew. This, like other dishes, was placed on top of the master injera, presenting the mealís most perplexing challenge: pick up pieces of the bread-layered stew with other pieces of bread or try to finger up the moist preparation by itself? Neither solution quite worked, and in spite of its peppery pleasures, we left the fitfit relatively untouched. Top-notch berbere, though.
We threw in a tibs entrťe, which usually deploys cubes of marinated lamb, beef, or, in the case of goden tibs ($12.50), marinated prime short ribs, sautťed here with tomato, onion, garlic, and jalapeŮo. Sharp knives are provided for separating the lovely meat from the bone--teeth were discreetly used, too--and the sauce here was a table favorite, wonderfully oily and mellow.
Dukem offers a page of vegetarian combination platters, available with fish. The seven-item platter ($11.50), although it was more food than we needed, was an impressive display of home-style cooking, with much more variety of texture and spicing among the lentils, yellow peas, chickpeas, and greens than weíve seen assembled by other Ethiopian kitchens.
As much as we enjoyed our food in Dukemís new dining room, we didnít feel much like lingering. And this is important. An Ethiopian meal should be enjoyed leisurely, and slow pacing allows diners to not only fully absorb the subtle differences among seemingly similar preparations but also to keep from getting filled up too soon. A good start would be bringing in occasional live music, as does its renowned sister restaurant in Washington, where things reportedly start hopping in the late hours of the evening. Even now, Dukem ranks near the top of the cityís best bargain-dining options.