More Light Than Heat
Sunlight Serves Up Solid, But Not Very Spicy, Ethiopian Fare
The first block of Eastern Avenue east of Broadway is assembling quite the little restaurant row. On the north side are the splendid Ecuadoran restaurant La Cazuela, and the indispensable Tortilleria and Tacos. Just across the street, the enterprising Timothy Dean Bistro has just opened, with valet parking and everything. Also new, at least under new management, is the unprepossessing Ethiopian eatery Sunlight Restaurant and Lounge (1713 Eastern Ave.,  342-5694), and by unprepossessing, I mean it looks kind of sketchy. The yellow-illuminated sign outside wouldn’t look out of place on Route 40, and inside isn’t much better—pool tables, fluorescent lighting, grotty tile floors. But the folks who work here welcome you warmly and dim the lights in the tidy dining area, which they’ve painted a sunny yellow and prettified with flower vases and tablecloths under glass tops. In spite of its first impression as something of a tough-luck lounge, Sunlight is worth checking out for hearty and inexpensive—but somewhat plain—Ethiopian food.
If the new management seems tentative about issues of ambiance, they’ve put together a decent-sized menu, one measurably more comprehensive than other Ethiopian restaurants around town. Wots, or stews, compose the bulk of the board of fare. Made from beef, chicken, or legumes like lentils and peas, these wots are ladled at your table onto the platter-sized flats of injera, that spongy, sour fermented bread you rip apart (with the right hand, please) to scoop with. But the menu also includes offerings of kitfo—minced beef seasoned with Ethiopian butter—and tibs—beef or lamb that’s sautéed rather than stewed.
Appetizers are limited to a simple tomato-onion-jalapeño salad and sambusas stuffed with either lentils or meat. We tried the sambusas ($1.50/$1.75), Ethiopia’s contribution to the known world’s mania for savory stuffed pastries, and found them lacking. The shells themselves were freshly fried to a greasy golden brown, but their insides were bland, in need of more assertive seasoning. Considering how hearty the entrée portions turned out to be, I’d advise skipping them.
Given the rest of the menu, we thought combination entrées sounded like a good strategy for our party of three. We went for the beyayentu, which combines four different meat wots ($16.50), and the vegetarian combination No. 3 ($12), which came with collard greens, cabbage, and azifa, a cold lentil-tomato salad seasoned with jalapeño, oil, and garlic.
This turned out to be the thing not to do. First, it was overkill for three people; we ended up leaving a lot of food on the table. But we met with a more frustrating problem—the lack of distinction among the different wots. One meat wot looked—and tasted—a lot like another. The vegetarian combination simply brought us too much in the way of filling starches that, along with the injera eaten with every bite, quickly did us in.
I’d recommend zeroing in on a few of the things we liked best. Sunlight’s version of the doro wot ($11.75 if ordered separately), probably the most familiar Ethiopian dish—the stew with the hardboiled eggs and chicken legs—is deliciously seasoned and pleasurably earthy. Real fans of Ethiopian food would want more hot-pepper impact, though. The other winner was the key michet-abish ($10.50), minced beef cooked with hot pepper and spices, which proved to us that minced beef better absorbs spices than the cubed beef in the platter’s other two wots.
More than all of the wots, though, I took to the zilzil tibs ($10), strips of wine- and pepper-marinated beef that had been sautéed to a chewy, dry finish—an enjoyable contrast in consistency to the wots. It felt good to use my canine teeth. This was the dish, too, that best showed off Sunlight’s proprietary berbere spice blend.
The vegetarian combination, with its surfeit of drab-looking helpings of lentils and peas, offered less pleasure. Among them, two stood out: the peppery, oniony misir wot ($7.50), a berbere-laced stew of split lentils and onions; and the yataklit wot ($7.50), an eye-engaging stew of carrots, string beans, and onions.
What appealed most about Sunlight was how much the food seemed like home cooking, except a lot less spicy. During a restaurant’s first few weeks, trying to find that right level of heat must be difficult, but the core audience for a new Ethiopian place will be looking for more heat than Sunlight’s giving right now. Let’s hope that, along with the other places cropping up on Eastern Avenue’s budding restaurant row, it will find its place with time.