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Chicken Stew for the Soul 

Thursday, Sep 23 2004
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

Ethiopia’s bread, injera, is notoriously difficult to make, a thin, floppy sheet that is as big as a yard sail and as tart as lemons. There are recipes for Ethiopian stews whose lists of ingredients stretch on for more than a printed page for the spices alone. But the telling dish in most Ethiopian restaurants, and among most Ethiopian cooks, seems to be the ubiquitous doro wot, a dense chicken stew, complex as a Oaxacan mole, rich as butter, whose flavor seems to cut right to the Ethiopian soul.

A doro wot can take anywhere from an afternoon to three days to prepare, onions slowly cooking down into a jam, spices blending, two dozen strong-flavored ingredients subsuming their sharp notes into a mellow if peppery whole, berbere melting into cardamom, into the edgy sweetness of simmered honey wine. A great doro wot has an undeniable presence, a resonance that is apparent even if you have never tasted Ethiopian cooking before, in the way that even a single chord of Bruckner played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic sounds better than the same chord played by the Seattle Symphony. An Ethiopian friend, Elias, told me that his mother warned him never to eat doro wot anywhere but at home, and he said that it was one of the best pieces of advice anybody had ever given him.

The doro wot Elias ate at his mother’s table was presumably better than anything it is possible to get outside of Africa, where even if the same ingredients were available, they would exist in a different context, like a novel read in the original instead of in translation. But the doro wot at Meals by Genet, on Fairfax Avenue’s Little Ethiopia strip, is a serious doro wot, vibrating with what must be ginger and black pepper and bishop’s weed and clove, but tasting of none of them, as sticky and dense as any French chef’s demiglace, so formidably solid that the chicken, which is well-cooked, becomes just another ingredient in the sauce.

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It is commonly held that the restaurants in the Little Ethiopia neighborhood are more or less alike. Most of them feature the same half-dozen dishes, buy their injera from the same bakery and serve their multicourse feasts on huge metal trays. The music migrates from restaurant to restaurant. The smell of incense does too. But Nyala, which seems to be the groovy Ethiopian restaurant, sports DJs and late-night jams and an antelope-heavy decorating scheme that looks like a cross between an early-’50s supper club and a post-college apartment; and Merkato, which is grungier, appears to be the restaurant where Ethiopians themselves go for a casual meal. Messob is studious, self-consciously exotic, with its coffee ceremony, its namesake low tables and its very good food. I haven’t visited Rosalind’s much since it changed over to an Ethiopian menu from a West African one, but I remember a mellow, post–Peace Corps vibe.

By contrast, Meals by Genet is more or less an Ethiopian bistro, which is to say a homey, soft-lit dining room that looks at least as French as it does African, with music as likely to be soft jazz as Afropop, and skinny ladderback chairs that are probably Ethiopian in design, but Ethiopian by way of Architectural Digest, if you know what I mean. The menu is short: crisp-skinned fried trout, half a dozen stews, and Genet Agonafer’s delicious version of kitfo, a dish of minced raw beef tossed with warm, spiced butter, as well as a few of the requisite Italian entrées. There is a modest list of wines, some of which even go pretty well with the restaurant’s highly spiced food. In Agonafer, the restaurant also has the most identifiable chef in Little Ethiopia, and her cooking has a delicacy, a refinement, that may not always be evident in the spicy party food at other restaurants in the neighborhood.

The foul, an Arab-inspired fava-bean dish that is likely to be the only appetizer you are offered, is puréed to the rough, stiff consistency of refried beans, garnished with sour cream, minced onion and hot peppers, and chopped tomato laid out atop the beans like a multicolored pinwheel, and served with a little dish of a fiery spiced red-pepper powder called mit’mit’a, which you mix in to taste. Each spoonful is subtly different from the last, some glowing with heat, some sharp and acerbic, some fresh and juicy. There is a lot of pleasure here for what is essentially a few grams of beans.

No matter how many of you there are, dinner is served on a big communal platter paved with injera. The big, round platter will probably be marked with little mounds of vegetables from the vegetarian combination — subtly curried yellow beans, perhaps, collard greens cooked with Ethiopian cottage cheese, spiced lentils, split peas with hot Ethiopian mustard, any number of things — as well as (if you have ordered them) a mound of gingery lamb hidden under an injera shroud, the mild green-chile stew tibs made with beef, chicken or tofu, or the doro wot.

When you taste Agonafer’s doro wot, you will want to throw rocks at other people’s doro wot. When Agonafer comes out of the kitchen dressed in whites as immaculate as a surgeon’s, she is modest, allowing only that the stew takes her two days to prepare, but if you made doro wot like that, you could afford to be modest about it too.

 

Meals by Genet, 1053 S. Fairfax Ave.; (323) 938-9304, www.mealsbygenet.com. Lunch and dinner Wed.–Sun. 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Beer and wine. Catering. Street parking. MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $19–$27.

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