[dehai-news] (San Diego Reader) Muzita Bistro: The Ambassador of Abyssinia

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From: Biniam Tekle (biniamt@dehai.org)
Date: Thu Mar 19 2009 - 08:13:18 EST

The Ambassador of Abyssinia

By Naomi Wise | Published Wednesday, March 18, 2009
 Muzita Abyssinian Bistro

4651 Park Boulevard, San Diego, 619-546-7900

Take my word, the cuisine of the Horn of Africa is fabulous — but to know
that, you have to taste it; and in San Diego, relatively few people have
enjoyed the pleasure. With Muzita, we may have a breakthrough restaurant
that introduces this food to all who don’t know yet what they’re missing.

When I moved here from the Bay Area, the state of local North African
restaurants came as a shock. They were a couple of low-price “dives” in City
Heights, “starving student” eateries. Back home, the much larger Ethiopian
community in Oakland made Ethiopian food a delicious multiple-choice quiz,
with numerous restaurants to choose from, all at prices from low to…well,

At the best of the lot, the aptly named Sheba, the stunning owner, Netsanet
(a dead ringer for the model Iman, or perhaps King Solomon’s “black and
beautiful” Queen of Sheba) served as ambassador for the food and culture —
feeding, educating, and delighting all who ventured into her beautifully
decorated dining room or her cooking classes. After closing Sheba to move
(briefly) back home to Ethiopia, Netsanet’s magic remained — she’d
popularized the cuisine and set a standard to strive for. Soon, good
Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants crossed the Bay and popped up all over
San Francisco, so that “going out for Ethiopian” became as easy a choice as
going out for Thai or Szechwan or Vietnamese. Needless to say, I’d love to
see that happen here.

With Muzita, we finally have a charming, friendly bistro in a middle-class,
attractive neighborhood, University Heights, to gently introduce San Diegans
to the joys of this cuisine. It occupies a handsome Craftsman bungalow with
a cheerful patio strung with twinkly lights (complete with coffee urn,
welcoming those who must wait for a table — gourmet coffee is Ethiopia’s top
export). The interior walls are decorated with East African art, and
haunting African music plays over the sound system.

Dreadlocked co-owner Abel Woldemichael and his enthusiastic American staff
welcome you warmly and are happy to explain anything you need to know. The
menu provides plenty of help as well, with descriptions of the major spice
blends and ingredients. Abel’s wife and mother are in charge of the kitchen.
(They buy spices from tiny Axum Market in City Heights, supplemented by care
packages from homeland relatives.) The owners quaintly and inclusively call
their cuisine “Abyssinian,” the name of the one-time regional empire; the
family is from Eritrea, but the terminology signals that the food will
embrace Ethiopian flavors, too. (Truth to tell, I could never distinguish
much culinary difference between these oft-warring next-door neighbors.)

The Lynnester, Scottish Sue, and Saint Steve, all total Africa virgins,
joined me. And before my usual carping and quibbling begins, note that my
friends were thrilled with the meal. If I was less impressed, it’s because
I’m stuck with a pre-existing and exalted standard from Netsanet (which is
why I mentioned her). The very strategy that makes Muzita such an attractive
introductory course in this cuisine — adapting the food to the San Diego
palate — left me occasionally disappointed, and sometimes even crestfallen.
But as Rummy nearly said, you eat at the restaurants you’ve got, not at the
restaurants you want.

A careful look at the menu reveals a “green,” slow-food ethos, with
earth-friendly ingredients such as local-grown produce, free-range eggs, and
Brandt’s semi-grass-fed, humanely raised beef. If the prices are higher than
at the restaurant’s City Heights cousins, they’re justified not only by
higher rent and spiffier decor but by costlier ingredients — and also by a
larger staff both in the dining room and the kitchen. This is not a
bare-bones mom ’n’ pop, but mom ’n’ pop gone thoroughly pro.

One of the line-cooks is reportedly from the American South, and we began
with a dish that fused Southern and African cooking (not a stretch):
Teff-encrusted *bamya* — deep-fried okra coated in Ethiopian whole-grain
flour. Teff is a high-protein, low-glycemic, low-gluten grain native to the
Horn of Africa, the most nutritionally vital foodstuff in the region, and
one of the healthiest grains on the planet. As finer-ground flour it goes
into *injera* pancakes, the staple starch. Whole (or perhaps coarse-ground),
with the color of mahogany and the texture of cornmeal, teff makes a
terrific coating for fried foods, like these perfect firm-tender, slime-free
okra fingers, gorgeously garnished with spiced roasted tomatoes and
caramelized cippolini onions with a golden-pepper emulsion. As Lynne said:
“Oh, yum!” (Teff also coats a fried calamari appetizer that I mean to try
next time.)

With no fork, how do you cope with the enticing garnishes? Here’s where
injera steps in — the Horn of Africa’s famous “edible washcloth” (as food
scholar Charles Perry calls it). *Injera* is a flat, porous pancake made of
fermented teff, tasting wheaty with a pleasant sour undertone from the
fermentation that makes for a bubbly dough. It’s both your utensil and your
plate-lining (a large round served under the entrées, soaking up their
juices — and to gobble up when you’re finished. It’s delicious, try to save
room). At Muzita, rectangular lengths of the pancake are rolled up like
linen table napkins and served alongside the dishes. Unroll, tear off
sections, and use to pick up other morsels. In this part of Africa, it’s all
finger-food, and a heck of a lot more sensual than biting down on metal.
Netsanet told us that in Ethiopia, lovers enjoy hand-feeding each other
bites of *injera*-wrapped goodies. Keep that in mind: Muzita would be a
great date destination, whether the goal is romance, sensuality, or both.

*Sambusas* are North Africa’s adaptation of Indian *samosas* — crisp little
stuffed pastries. (Indian merchants, trading all over the world, leave a
trail of *samosas* like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs.) The fillings can
be anything at all, savory or sweet. Here, the three choices are drawn from
other regular menu items: *alitcha* (mixed vegetables), *hamli* (collards
and spinach, a more typical filling), and *dorho tsebhi* (braised chicken).
They are all very good. A small plate of *awaze* (hot spice-paste) dipping
sauce accompanied the pastries. “I’m not into really hot,” said Lynne, “but
I wouldn’t count this as hot at all.” The rest of us agreed. You may want to
ask for an extra dish of *awaze* (pronounced “ah-WAH-zeh”) to see you
through the meal, since absolutely nothing, as cooked here, is fully up to
the typical spice level of this cuisine.

The *kitfo*, especially, broke my heart, with its extreme caution on all
fronts. The *kitfo* I ate all over the Bay Area (and here in City Heights)
was an incendiary version of beef tartare — raw, tender, hand-chopped beef
mixed with a fiery *mitmita* spice blend and served at room temperature,
coated with warmed, spiced clarified butter (*nit’r kibbe* in Netsanet’s
Amharic, or *tesma* in the dialect of Muzita’s owners) and scattered with
homemade cottage cheese (*ajibo*). It’s a sublime dish for heat-lovers and
meat-lovers. In America, diners are typically given a choice between raw and
cooked. Here, although I specifically requested that our *kitfo* be served
raw, it arrived fully cooked, the butter sizzling and the *mitmita* and
cheese on the side — and the *mitmita* itself proved a mighty mild version.
I’d suggest to the owners that they make this baby-food version for novices
but serve the uncooked, fiery authentic mixture with the spices already
mixed in to anybody who comfortably orders, “Raw, please — just warm the *
tesma* a little.”

Abyssinians rank with East Indians among the great vegetarian cooks of the
world. Ethiopia was the second nation (after Armenia) to adopt Christianity,
and Orthodox (Coptic) Christians, about half the population of both Ethiopia
and Eritrea, observe some 200 meatless fast days a year. Entrées at Muzita,
whether meat or veg, come with a salad and a choice of three veggie sides —
but my favorite veggie wasn’t a side possibility, only an entrée. I made a
deal to get a half portion of *shiro*, puréed chickpeas, for half price. It
arrived as a separate course, worth the effort and the money: rich, dark,
complex, a bit sour, so satisfying it might justify sacrificing a meat

The best-known Abyssinian dish is doro wat (in this dialect, *tsebi dorho*)
— chicken slowly stewed in dark red berberé spice paste. Muzita’s version is
unconventional, lacking the thick mahogany sauce that normally robes the
chicken — but the poultry, slow-cooked to absorb the spices, is tender and
imbued with flavor. (Could they have used a slow-cooker? Must try that at
home!) I may actually prefer this version to the classic, which is so
technically challenging that, if the cook is even slightly distracted, it
can emerge with dried-out chicken and/or burned, sludgy sauce. The tradition
is to serve the chicken with a hard-cooked egg (the menu inaccurately
promises soft-boiled), to show hospitality to guests, and the Woldemichael
family is nothing if not hospitable. I just wish the egg hadn’t been
ice-cold. Normally, it gets reheated in the traditional sauce, but here, as
noted, there was no sauce at all. (Another suggestion: raw eggs don’t spoil
in the nest while waiting to hatch, and unpeeled hard-cooked eggs can be
kept at room temperature for quite a while — hours, days, maybe longer...
Every bar in redneck country and every Chinese deli offering “100-year-old
eggs” does it.)

*Beggie kilwa* (*ye-beg t’ibs* in Amharic) offers sautéed New Zealand leg of
lamb, not rare (as stated on the menu) but not overcooked either, in a tasty
stir-fry of spices, *tesmi*, garlic, and serrano chilies. It’s a hit. If you
prefer beef, you’ll find the same mixture made with Brandt beef as *siga

*Zigini beggie* has the lamb leg slices braised in berberé spices with
stewed tomato and onion — it resembles classic doro wat served with the
sauce. It’s virtually the same dish as the *tsebhi doro*, with meat instead
of chicken, plus the missing sauce. Only problem: the meat is overcooked.

You don’t see a lot of seafood on Abyssinian menus, despite the proximity of
the Red Sea (to Eritrea) and the Blue Nile trickling down from Egypt. For
one thing, shellfish are forbidden to both Coptic Christians and Islamics
(roughly the other half the population). Nonetheless, Muzita offers a couple
of seafood entrées, including a shellfish. We passed on the *tesmi*-seared
ono with spaghetti squash and spicy tomato sauce, however tasty it sounded,
because this delicate Hawaiian fish seems to lose a lot in transit from the
islands, no matter who cooks it. Instead, we went for prawn *kilwa*,
marinated in honey-wine and tossed with herbs and white wine
*awaze*(pepper-paste) sauce. Some prawns proved perfect. Some were
overcooked. The
sauce was bright and tart, if (again) not very spicy.

Each entrée comes with a fresh green salad and your choice of a veggie from
a limited list. The salad is awesome — yes, awesome. OMG, where are they
getting sweet, ripe tomatoes in February? The vinaigrette is aces, too. A
salad like this in midwinter set the women at our table to sighing, “Take
me, I’m yours!”

*Hamli* (greens) is a happy marriage of collards and spinach. “I love the
way that the almost-harsh texture and strong flavor of the collards is
balanced by the softness and near-sweetness of the spinach,” said Scottish
Sue. *Alitcha atakiti* is a slickety stir-fried mixture based on soft
cabbage, potatoes, and red and orange veggies — peppers, squash tomatoes. *
Timtimo* is a rather austere purée of red Egyptian lentils that looks like
sweet squash (raising false hopes) but tastes like dried legumes. It
reminded me of Nepali *dal bhat*, the inescapable plain rice ’n’ lentil
mixture of the Himalayas. Good nourishment for vegans, but I wish the more
compelling *shiro* (chick peas) were an option.

For our first round of drinks, the most interesting was Steve’s Harar stout,
dark-colored and mellow, with a faint, sweet hint of honey. I’m not a beer
lover, but I’d happily drink this through the meal if I couldn’t have wine.
The citrusy, refreshing dryness of a Kim Crawford New Zealand sauvignon
blanc went surprisingly well with the starters — perfect in the peculiar way
that an icy Raj-era British gin and tonic can complement spicy East Indian

Although the wine list includes a reisling and a gewürtztraminer (the
fallbacks for spicy foods), for the entrées I gravitated to a bottle of mess
(or t’ej, for all you Amharic speakers out there), a wonderful honey wine,
this one bottled in Orange County for Ethiopian restaurants. Unlike many of
its ilk, it was not too heavy or sweet, but crisp and delicious, a perfect
bright white for spicy food. Many diners try it only as a dessert wine, but
it does well all through the meal. Speaking of desserts — the restaurant
usually offers several, including crème brûlée, tiramisu, and some chocolate
thing. But we just couldn’t handle any more food.

Bottom line: If Ethiopian/Eritrean food is new to you, Muzita will be the
perfect introduction to awaken your palate to the brilliant cuisine of this
ancient civilization. Once you’re hooked — and you will be, unless you just
can’t stand eating with your hands (you poor wuss, don’t even try to date
me) — then if you want to explore further, you might consider heading out to
the “dives” of City Heights and trying the food at Asmara or Red Sea, where
if you ask for “hot,” you will be authentically scorched. Or not. Muzita is
milder but delightful on its own.

Bargain bites: Costa Brava on Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach, undoubtedly
the best Spanish restaurant in the county (with the handsomest, most
hospitable owner, ponytailed Javier), offers happy hour tapas (858-273-1218,
call for hours) for $5 and under — a remarkable buy, considering the
quality. And for raw oyster lovers, the Fishery on Cass Street, a few blocks
west, is offering shucked-to-order ultra-fresh raw oysters at $1.25 each,
every Tuesday until the end of March, 4:00–10:00 p.m. — with wine specials,
too. Gimme a coupla dozen and a Kim Crawford sauvignon!

*Muzita Bistro

**** (Very Good)

4651 Park Boulevard (south of Adams Avenue), University Heights,

*HOURS*: *Tuesday–Thursday 5:00–10:00 p.m., Friday–Saturday until 11:00
p.m.; Sunday until 9:00 p.m.*

*PRICES*: *Starters, $8–$12; entrées, $9–$21 (most about $16)*.

*CUISINE AND BEVERAGES*: *Ethiopian/Eritrean dishes adapted to American
tastes, plus some Afro-Cal fusion inventions. Apt, affordable international
wine list, including crisp-sweet Ethiopian honey-wine, plus three
Abyssinian, Tasmanian, and Tahitian beers, Shoju cocktails. Corkage $10.*

*PICK HITS*: *Teff-crusted *bamya* (fried okra fingers); *sambusas;
shiro*(ground chick peas);
*tsebhi doro* (chicken stewed in spice-paste); *beggie kilwa* (stir-fried
lamb leg and vegetables); *mess *(honey wine)*.

*NEED TO KNOW*: *Several stairs up to dining room. Meals served family
style, eaten with fingers, using pancakes instead of utensils. Pancake-bread
made from a high-protein, low-gluten, low-glycemic whole grain, fine for
low-carb and diabetic diets. Plenty for vegetarians and vegans. Romantic for
daters. Small space, reserve for weekends and prime time and for large
groups. Easy street parking.*

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