Cafe's Delectable Ethiopian Fare

EATS

April 30, 2009|By Richard Gorelick | Richard Gorelick,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Elfegne Ethiopian Cafe is a peach. Owned and operated, pretty much single-handedly, by former mortgage broker Emu Kidanewolde, this small and tidy 20-seat storefront cafe is more than just a great place to feast on inexpensive home-cooked Ethiopian food. Elfegne also acts as a de facto community center for the residents of Washington Village (aka Pigtown). It opens at 7 in the morning for breakfast (Kidanewolde will have been there for hours already, making homemade injera, the fermented Ethiopian bread staple) and stays open through dinner. When we visited, a few neighbors had dropped in for a bite to eat but also to keep Kidanewolde company and even lend a hand. This was the day when the Susan Boyle video went viral, and all of us in the restaurant ended up watching it together on one of the neighbor's laptops.

This was actually the second time we had tried to eat at Elfegne. The first time we came, the restaurant had been commandeered by a single group for a party. That was discouraging, but it suggested this scenario: A few people had fallen in love with Elfegne, had told a few other people about it, and then felt strongly enough about it to invite more people there for a celebratory dinner. It was worth coming back for.

The menu here is simple and streamlined, with only about a dozen or so entrees. The most familiar Ethiopian menu items here are beef and lamb tibs (sauteed cubed meat), wot (stew) and kitfo (raw or rare beef), but only in their most typical versions. So, where another restaurant might have five or six versions of tibs, Elfegne has two. This is actually a kind of relief. Ordering from an Ethiopian menu can be arduous, but here it was easy. It was even simpler because some items are only available on certain days. Kidanewolde only makes the elaborate dulet, with lamb tripe, on Saturday and doro wot, a chicken stew, on Monday. Lamb wasn't being served on the Thursday when we visited. This system made sense to us - it both eases the burden on the kitchen and lets customers know that their food is being made from fresh meat and poultry.

The thing to get here is the half and half, which gives you a choice of two half-sized dishes, which will be presented together on a platter-sized sheet of injera. One of these choices could be the vegetable combination - gently spiced lentils, yellow peas, collard greens - and the other a meat-based dish. The beef tibs is a fine choice. This is a deceptively simple dish, just cubes of beef sauteed with onions and green pepper in an awaze, the paste made from the berbere pepper. But Elfegne's version really looked and tasted fresh and homemade.

Kitfo is a little more challenging in that it's made, usually, from raw beef. Blended with herbed butter and garnished with a dried red-pepper powder, this makes for a tremendously rich and satisfying meal. Kidanewolde also offers a cooked version of kitfo, but if you can handle raw food, order it that way.

We liked our other dishes, too; the bozena shiro, a nourishing and savory meat stew made typically from a powder made of chick peas, but at Elfegne with fava beans; and the quanta fitfit, which tosses dried, jerkylike strips of beef with strips of injera, vegetables and seasoned butter. We enjoyed a refreshing lettuce and tomato salad before the main meal but made the mistake of filling up on too much fermented bread. Elfegne also serves smoothies, homemade ginger iced tea and the best cup of coffee I've had in a restaurant in months.

We want to go back to Elfegne for breakfast someday, for an omelet or a bowl of steamed cracked wheat, or the bowl of mashed beans and vegetables that our friend with the laptop says sustains him throughout the day.

elfegne ethiopian cafe

Where: : 821 Washington Blvd.

Call: : 410-637-3207

Open: : 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Credit cards: : MasterCard, Visa, AMEX, Discover

Entrees: : $7-$12

Appetizers/sides: : $1.75-$5

Alcohol: : BYOB

Food: : *** (3 stars)

Ambience: : ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Service: : ** (2 stars)

on the menu

* Half and half - $11.50

* Beef tibs - $10.50

* Kitfo - $11

* Doro wot - $12

* Vegetarian platter - $10.50

* Tuna firfir - $10

* Elfegne Bozena Shiro - $8

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