A recent Chron piece on "The Bay Area's Best Dining Deals" described the food at a new Ethiopian restaurant in town as "humble." That got me hungering for good Ethiopian food, and remembering Sheba, the departed queen of Ethiopian eateries -- nothing humble about the food, or the chic, sunny decor, or the amazing woman who presided over it all, and taught so many of us what to look for in good Ethiopian cooking. The latter's name was Netsanet; last I'd seen her, she was hostessing (but not cooking) at Rasselas Ethiopian Cuisine & Jazz Club. When I called for reservations this time, I inquired after her. She was gone, alas, said the person who answered, unable to provide further information. But in any event, our new fellow culinary adventurer, Nick, was eager to sample Ethiopian food, and Mary Ann had eaten it just once (at a restaurant that I'd tried and found wanting), so off we trouped to the outer Western Addition for a taste of kitfo and an earful of jazz.
Gone or not, Netsanet's influence over the Bay Area's rich Ethiopian food scene remains formidable. For several years, her Sheba was the outstanding Ethiopian restaurant in Oakland, a town wealthy in this food genre. Ethiopia is just across the thin blue line of the Red Sea from the historical land of Sheba (Saaba, a one-time region of southwestern Arabia) and Netsanet certainly fit King Solomon's gaga paeans, being black and beautiful, tall and regal, resembling Somalian model Iman. The dishes that came from her kitchen were equally stunning and sensual, made with authentic ingredients (that her mother would send from home) and bursting with complex, vivid flavors that were simultaneously spicier and more refined than the American-adapted versions at other restaurants. And Netsanet herself would circulate among the tables, teaching about the cuisine and its associated customs, educating hundreds of palates.
This was during a low period in the homeland, with famine and political upheaval, when American GIs jokingly dubbed their MRE kits "Meals Rejected by Ethiopians." When the situation eased, Netsanet returned to her country, and Sheba vanished as utterly as its ancient namesake. Its loyalists scattered, loath to settle for less. East Bay residents eventually discovered the Red Sea, in southernmost Oakland, where the food is, at least, authentically fiery. San Franciscans had a harder time of it. After trying the drab dishes at three local Restaurants Rejected by Ethiopians, I found myself silently wailing, "Come back, little Sheba."
A few years later, a pleasant, run-down bohemian bar (called Colonel Mustard's) underwent a transformation: Renamed Rasselas, after the Prince of Abyssinia (the old name for Ethiopia) in Samuel Johnson's 18th-century novel, it was remodeled into a jazz club, and started serving Ethiopian food in a separate dining room next to the nightclub area. And who should reappear to greet its patrons but Netsanet herself, recently returned to the Bay Area. She preferred to serve as the hostess rather than to cook, but Rasselas' chef must at least have come from the same region -- on several visits, the food certainly tasted more like Sheba's than any I'd found elsewhere.
So we went to the Netsanet-less Rasselas with empty bellies and open minds. Turning left inside the nightclub, we descended a step to find a small sunken dining room under a tented ceiling of cream-colored fabric. The tables have burgundy cloths, and the walls display several paintings in Coptic folk-art style, portraying historical events, including one that unsettlingly (given the iconic style) depicts a World War I-era battle, complete with coffins, Red Cross ambulances, and Gatling guns.
Rasselas' menu is brief and efficient, with no appetizers or sweets, just a half-dozen main courses topping out at $10.95 for the labor-intensive "vegetarian combination." The food comes swiftly. Typical of Ethiopian dinners, everything is served on a round platter lined with room-temperature injera, a large, porous pancake that looks like the surface of the moon and soaks up the flavors of all the foods placed on it. (Food scholar Charles Perry has described it as "an edible washcloth.") You'll also receive a basket containing more injera, to use as an eating implement until you've uncovered enough of the palatable platter to switch to it. You tear off a piece and (using just your right hand if you care about good form), scoop up some goodies and -- yum. It's a sensual all-food experience with no cold metal interposing itself between your teeth and the tastes. From the injera's dark color and faint grainy aroma, TJ and I guessed the presence of teff, a dark, coarse (and very nutritious) Ethiopian staple grain. You can buy high-priced packaged teff at health food stores, but it's infernally difficult to work with, requiring Saharan heat to properly ferment and rise. Hence, most local injera is made from regular flour lightened with club soda. Rasselas' features, instead, an ingenious combination of teff, wheat flour, rice flour, and corn flour, which creates a more interesting flavor and pores galore for soaking up juices.
Even if only two of you go for dinner, I'd recommend ordering three dishes: kitfo (standing in for an appetizer), the veg combo, and doro wat, to get a good range of flavors. (At these prices, go wild!) I told the waitress, "In any dish where there's a choice, we'd like it spicy." She accurately answered, "Only the kitfo is spicy." Kitfo is a special case of beef tartare. A solid hunk of lean beef is, typically, washed with lemon juice (as a hygienic measure) and chopped to a fine velvety texture just before serving (with all fat and gristle removed, in good versions). Hence, the bacterial dangers are closer to those of rare roast beef than to pre-ground hamburger. Respecting current food-phobias, the waitress asked if we wanted it raw or cooked; horrified by the thought of the latter, I said, "Raw, just warm the nit'r k'ibe a little." Nit'r k'ibe (pronounced roughly "neetra kibbeh") is the major flavoring of kitfo: It's spiced clarified butter, simmered with garlic, cardamom, turmeric, cinnamon, fenugreek, ginger, cloves, peppercorns, and (when available) rue and the cuminlike seeds of Nigella damascena, the charming flower known as "love-in-a-mist." With the addition of salt, cayenne, and even more spices, a good kitfo is a piquant, savory, and addictive mouthful. Rasselas' version was perfect, rich and spicy with nary a hint of gristle. Kitfo is often garnished with a puff of cottage cheese; here, it's bare, but we never missed the cheese.
The other selections were, as announced, more gently spiced. Doro wat is the national dish, a chicken stew flavored by a savory spice-mix called berbere. The quality of a doro wat is relentlessly revealing. Because the stew calls for plenty of dried spices mixed with a relatively small amount of liquid, it's frighteningly easy to burn the sauce, and many local restaurants do. And, following the Ethiopian custom of giving a guest an egg, a hospitable doro wat always includes one, hard-cooked. Eggless chicken indicates that the cook doesn't give a cluck. Here, the egg was present, the sauce wasn't burned, the chicken was tender, and everything was flavorful, albeit less spicy than I'd like.
We also had an order of ye-beg alitcha, lamb in a quiet yellow sauce with pronounced notes of onion and parsley. Small pieces of meat (on the bone) were mainly moist and tender, but relatively unexciting. More engaging were the assorted vegetables. There were large red-brown lentils in a rich, smoky-flavored sauce, and bland, soothing yellow lentils, and tiny mashed brown lentils in a creamy mayonnaiselike sauce. There was a slightly gritty white mash (perhaps garbanzo beans) with a clean, refreshing dressing. There were spicy mustard greens, which we all adored, and a mound of cooked cabbage that tasted like Russian food. Ringed at intervals around the plate were lettuce and tomato. All of us liked some of it; no two of us had exactly the same preferences, but we agreed that having all those tastes to nibble on was a treat.
At 9 p.m., an hour after our arrival, a live jazz band started playing in the next room at a volume that overpowered conversation. Mary Ann was still sipping "Ethiopian spiced tea" of questionable provenance, consisting of a tea bag and a cup of hot water. Nick and I had "Ethiopian coffee," which indeed had the chewy heft of Harar beans, brewed strong enough that we both dove for the cream. We gulped and were gone -- hey, we came for the food, not the sounds. And the food had been good, very good. Unfortunately, in a tiny restaurant (one cook, about eight tables, and eight or nine diners all told on a Friday night), there's just not enough volume (or enough cooks) to spice the food "to order" without compromising either its flavor (adding cayenne at the last minute just doesn't do it) or its speed of arrival. And unfortunately, on our side of the bay, Ethiopian cuisine hasn't yet gained the popularity or clout ("humble," indeed!) to make a dinner an "event" worthy of an evening's savoring, including some waiting time before the food arrives. At Rasselas, the dining room plays second fiddle (or sax) to the jazz club -- except, obviously, to the chef and the happy guests. With its out-of-the-way location (far from any of the more populous "restaurant rows") this is probably the least-known Ethiopian eatery in the city, but it continues to serve the city's tastiest, most authentic version of the cuisine.