A small Southwest Baltimore restaurant serves up noteworthy Ethiopian fare
"Will you be open for dinner?" I asked Elfegne Café's owner Emu Kidanewolde over the phone. Yes, Kidanewolde said, he'd be there until at least 7 p.m. But if we were going to come later, he would stay as late as eight o'clock. Elfegne Café opens at breakfast, he explained, so if he doesn't have dinner customers by 7 p.m., he closes up shop.
This kindness sets the tone for an evening at Elfegne Café. When we arrived at 7:15 p.m., we found a grinning, soft-spoken Kidanewolde taking care of the two parties--one small, one large--that filled the Pigtown storefront. It's a snug, immaculate spot with a little exposed brick, a community bulletin board, and a view into the kitchen behind the cash register, and there was just enough room for our party of four in the corner under the television. In these close quarters, it somehow feels right to be eating Ethiopian food.
Even folks who aren't very familiar with this African cuisine seem to know the two basics. Instead of being served individual portions, you eat family style from large platters. And instead of using utensils, you scoop up food with oatmeal-gray injera, the thin, spongy, fermented bread of Ethiopia. And though none in our group were novices to this food or to the way of eating it, during our meal, we kept remarking about the sense of kinship that results in sharing large plates, eating with hands, reaching for the same mound of lentils or beef. Sharing a meal is certainly a step toward intimacy in both romance and friendship, and if you're not close to your fellow diners before this meal, you soon will be.
A word of caution, however. Ordering at Elfegne Café can be a bit of a challenge. Certain dishes--such as the yebeg kikil (lamb with garlic, onion, and ginger) and doro wot, a chicken stew--are made only on certain days of the week (and not on Wednesday, the night of our dinner). And if you come later in the evening, as we did, the small kitchen may have sold out of something, like kitfo, beef tartar seasoned with herb butter.
Although there is a menu, Kidanewolde took the lead at our table, recommending the beef tibs ($10.50) and the half-and-half platter ($11.50) of more beef tibs and vegetarian accompaniments. When we explained we wanted to try as many different things as possible, he still returned to his original recommendations, which suggests that what we ordered was what the kitchen had made that day, understandable in a restaurant of this size. Still, the food that arrived was good--really good--and interesting enough to make us want to return and try other dishes.
The beef tibs were more than fine--a sauté of lean cubes of beef mixed with small curls of onion--but my hand kept straying to the other side of the half-and-half: the nearly creamy yellow lentils, the small beads of brown lentils in a spicier, tomato-based sauce, the pebbles of green lentils. Kidanewolde described the platter's small mound of greens as "something like spinach," but they were more like collards or kale, slightly bitter and a good foil for the meat. Equally pleasing was the combination of braised potatoes and carrots, which added color and a little sweetness to the platter.
Kidanewolde also put together a platter with bozena shiro ($8), a thick brown sauce made from chick peas and onions, and another good reason to tear off a strip of light-as-air injera (lighter and more satisfying than I have had at any other Ethiopian restaurant) and dig in. Each platter was garnished with a garlicky salad of tomatoes and greens.
There's no dessert at Elfegne Café, though you can order coffee or refreshing ginger-spiced tea after your meal. And there's no alcohol served either, though customers are welcome to bring their own.
Elfegne Café is not going to be for everyone. It certainly won't work for folks wanting or needing to dine later than 6 or 7-ish or folks who can't be satisfied by ordering whatever is on hand. But for flexible diners, Elfegne Café satisfies in a way that only kindness and home-cooked food can.