Run-Down Space Serves Up Big Taste
Published: Thursday, March 15, 2012
Updated: Thursday, March 15, 2012 18:03
Potentially dyspeptic spices, cushioned-floor seating, no silverware, dimly lit overhead light fixtures — three steps into the lounge of Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant in Adams Morgan and my senses had rendered me powerless from drawing parallels to Ben Stiller’s experience with "ethnic food" in Along Came Polly.
In the film, Stiller’s character, Reuben, forces himself to sit through dinner at a hip New York City "ethnic" restaurant in the hopes of impressing his eclectic date, Polly (Jennifer Aniston). By the end of the meal, an uncomfortably cross-seated Reuben painfully continues to take handfuls of food as he drips with sweat and suffers from an audible bout with intensely irritable bowels.
Thankfully, my media-influenced reprehensions proved to be groundless — although Meskerem is undeniably a unique dining experience, the restaurant satisfies on many other levels.
With no prior experience with Ethiopian cuisine, my two guests and I collectively decided to take a conservative approach to the menu and order Meskerem specialties per our waitress’s suggestion.
We started with a small appetizer of sambusa, a crispy dough shell stuffed with a savory blend of minced beef, green chili and herbs. The sambusa are deep-fried in vegetable oil, yielding a delightfully flakey and buttery texture. For $3.75, they were a cheap and delicious introduction to the ethnic cuisine.
For salads, our party split a small tomato and a small Meskerem at $5.00 a piece. The tomato salad, reminiscent of a Spanish gazpacho, featured an infusion of diced tomato, onions, green chili, lemon and olive oil. My favorite dish of the meal, it boasted a fantastic combination of flavors in a non-traditional representation. The Meskerem salad — lettuce, feta, tomato and olive oil in a house dressing — was initially satisfying, but unfortunately gave way to wilted greens after only a few bites.
Moving to the entrees, we settled on the Meskerem Messob for three, a large finger-food meal arranged on a traditional Ethiopian serving tray. The dish featured sizeable portions of beef, chicken, lamb and vegetables heaped atop a large piece of injera, a traditional Ethiopian flatbread. Although it soon became hard to differentiate meats and seasonings from one another, the dish as a whole packed a great balance of flavors.
In the Ethopian culture, injera is torn into pieces and used as a tool for picking up and eating food. Eating such a messy dish with my hands was not only nostalgic of kindergarten but also enhanced the comfort level of the meal. I found our party of three began to laugh and genuinely enjoy the experience more as our repudiation of silverware forced us into a nonjudgmental experimentation with clumsy eating.
Meskerem’s stellar cuisine really does give the impression of dining in Ethiopia, but, unfortunately, the decor and wait staff were less impressive. Our server’s inexperience with English was painfully evident and made for some awkward situations — fine with a party of three friends but potentially devastating to an intimate date needing relief. The ripped tablecloth, peeling paint and cracked chairs were signs of a serious need for renovation.
Even so, Meskerem’s superior cuisine makes the restaurant a quality choice for open-minded diners. While the deficiencies in aesthetics and personnel detract slightly from the overall experience, they ironically illustrate the fact that Meskerem principally survives on the hallmark of dining — good food.