1538 Haight (at Ashbury), 621-4129. Open Tuesday through Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m. Wheelchair accessible but restrooms lack grab bar. Parking: scary. Muni via all Haight Street bus lines and the 33 Stanyan and 43 Masonic.
907 Irving (at 10th Avenue), 681-1288. Open Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m., Sunday 3 to 11 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: awful. Muni via the N Judah and 44 O'Shaughnessy, plus the 6 Parnassus, 43 Masonic, 66 Quintara, and 71 Haight-Noriega all come within two blocks.
When the Weekly's restaurant capsules went geographical, it became obvious that the Haight was in howling need of attention. A couple of stroll-throughs revealed a likely reason: Both the Lower and Upper Haight mainly specialize in breakfast -- morning, noon, and night. Since breakfast is rarely a thrilling meal, I zeroed in on another Haight specialty: Ethiopian cuisine, which is thrilling.
The Haight's Ethiopian restaurants differ from most in featuring the cuisine of northeastern Ethiopia and Eritrea, the latter a newly independent country. So even if you're familiar with Ethiopian food, you'll encounter some new dishes and a new language on the menu: Instead of Ethiopia's Amharic, Eritreans speak Tigrinya, the dialect of the Tigre region along the Red Sea coast.
Many words are similar (with spelling variations, since the region uses a different alphabet) -- stew is still allicha, chicken is still doro (ditto), and the Amharic ye-beg (lamb) is begee. Other food-words diverge: the Amharic wat, a thick tomato-based stew, is Tigrinya's zebhi or tshebi.
Our first stop, tiny, colorful Axum (named for an ancient metropolis in Tigre Province), emphasizes vegetables, in accord with the Coptic Christian calendar's 100-plus "meatless Fridays" per year. A combination of all five vegetarian entrees ($9 for two diners to $21 for five) includes tumtumo, an incendiary red lentil puree, while a chickpea puree is richly flavored. Hamli (gomen in Amharic), a spinach dish flavored with vinegar, calls across the seas to the long-cooked, vinegar-dressed greens of American "soul food," while alicha -- vegetable stew -- incorporates potatoes, cabbage, and carrots, each retaining its own flavor and texture, sharpened with a touch of vinegar.
Axum doesn't offer kitfo (the spicy Ethiopian beef tartare) but kintishara makes a bracing vegetarian substitute: Firm, fine-chopped mushroom duxelles carry the same buttery, complex seasoning and fire, bestowing kitfo's joys without the tenderloin price and the raw meat risks. Everything, of course, is served on and with injera, the porous, spongy pancakelike bread that serves as your edible utensil -- you tear off pieces and scoop up the other foodstuffs with it.
Among the carnivore items, tshebie derho proved to be doro wat by any other name -- a skinned chicken thigh (or leg) stewed in a slightly caramelized tomato-paste and pepper mixture. The meat was moist but the sauce a touch harsh. The lamb tibsie, though, was superlative: Normally a stir-fry of meat strips with aromatic vegetables (mainly pepper and onion), here the meat is grilled first, so it's both smokier and moister.
As we ate, our companion Dave pointed out the tiny human figures in the corner of the long mural, which depicts a rural panorama of the homeland. I admired how Axum's lacy, fringed hanging lamps illuminated miniature Coptic images from within.
About half our fellow diners were young "Lower Haight" types, the other half East African. "An Ethiopian friend of mine at work told me that about 300 Ethiopians and Eritreans live within six blocks of Axum," said Dave, "and they all eat here regularly." Perhaps that's why Axum's food is fully seasoned, not wimpy-for-whites. We didn't have to ask for the "hot version."
We never discovered whether the giant round tray our meal was served on bore any decorations beneath the injera lining -- we couldn't get to the bottom of the huge amount of food we received for just $11 per person, including drinks.
Wine lists at East African restaurants are usually perfunctory, as few European grapes complement the food. Axum's tej ($4/glass), East African honey wine, is an odd version with a boozy, muscatellike undertone and a slight brownness of flavor, hinting of a hot time in the storeroom. But this was a tiny flaw, balanced against the tremendous food.
Our next stop was the Upper Haight's Massawa, named after Eritrea's largest Red Sea port. The decor is Formica with rattan interludes, and our all-American servers were really nice. The tej was the same muscatelish brand as Axum's, in slightly fresher condition, but we found an Alpine beer called Spaten that went brilliantly with this cuisine.
Unfortunately, Massawa's cuisine wasn't brilliant. The injera, served dead cold, was not only the thickest and blandest we've ever tasted, but had sat around so long that the edges were crusty. To add insult to injera, the restaurant provides only one piece per diner, and charges $1 each for extra.
We enjoyed a sambusa ($2.75), a chimichangalike deep-fried rectangle of egg-roll dough, stuffed with a spicy, very oniony vegetable mixture -- it'd make a good snack if you're in the neighborhood. But our main courses (averaging $10 each) and side dishes were so awkward and lifeless, it's kinder not to detail them when a better kitchen needs the column space.
After the disappointment, we resolved to go another mile -- to the Inner Sunset's new New Eritrea, an erstwhile Massawa spinoff that changed hands in July. If you ever blindly bumped into a table at the restaurant's previous incarnation, be assured the bar is now brightly lighted (and disconcertingly mirror-rich), while the pleasant dining room in back is under a skylight.
The menu also sheds light on the cuisine with a short food glossary on the back cover, and lets diners choose their spice levels -- hot, not, or mild. Weekdays, there's a bargain-priced, vegetable-centered buffet lunch, but we were more interested in dining on several rare Eritrean dishes among the a la carte choices ($7-10.50). Our instant favorite, gored gored ($9.75), had chewy-tender lean beef cubes cooked rare and spicy, bathed in tesmi, the deeply seasoned clarified butter that makes kitfo so irresistible. Another house special we enjoyed was kilwa ($9.50), which seemed to be a variant on t'ibs -- it's a stir-fry of onions, tomatoes, green peppers, and your choice of animal protein; we tried it with boneless diced chicken, but decided the treatment would better suit lamb.
Sambusas ($2.75-3) came with a choice of three fillings: the earthy, oniony lentil stuffing was very spicy, the vegetable option (with lots of peas) was sweet, and an addictive meat stuffing had moist, chopped (not ground) beef, gorgeously seasoned with spices I couldn't even guess at.
New Eritrea makes its injera with teff. This East African ground grain (mixed with a little white flour and liquid, and fermented until bubbly) gives the pancakes a tan hue and a sourdoughlike tang that lends another layer of flavor to everything it wraps. The meat of the kitfo we wrapped in it could have used more picking over to remove the gristle, and its spicing seemed a bit shy. Seconds later, however, our server delivered ramekins of house-made dry cottage cheese (ajibo) and mitmita, kitfo's searing spice blend, to sprinkle on to taste.
A meat combination plate started with zigni, diced beef in a lively, muscular red sauce similar to Axum's version of tshebie derho. But the zebhie doro here was smooth, buttery, and gentle, made with tomatoes instead of tomato paste. Allicha beggee was a mild, Irish-reminiscent lamb stew with potatoes and carrots and just a waft of curry spices. Among the side dishes, the spinach was outstanding, given tang and lusciousness by peeled tomatoes instead of vinegar. The lentil puree was marvelous, too, richly curried like good tandoori-house dal. The kitchen includes a little yogurt in the array of sides -- it's more effective than water at quenching cayenne-fires.
The tej ($4/$6.50/$18) was pretty good, and New Eritrea also offers the option of 23-ounce bottles of the Ivory Coast's Mamba ($5), a malt liquor mellow enough to pass for beer. In addition, the restaurant offers desserts, but we never got that far. New Eritrea's own food was just too exciting for us to save any room for one more tiramisu.
We're sorry the Upper Haight's candidate stumbled, but a mile in either direction are the lands of milk and honey. Yes, that's on the Eritrean beverage lists, too.