25.9.08

WAT's so good about Ethiopian?

Whether or not you're in the DC/NoVA area, you should definitely try out an Ethiopian restaurant. If you are in the area, then you can try out Ethiopian at a very impressive little joint in Crystal City: Harar Mesob. It is located in the block of 23rd and Eads in Crystal City (Arlington neighborhood) known to some as Restaurant Row. It is an eclectic strip of good quality neighborhood restaurants, and Mesob really adds to both the character and the quality of the area.

Julia introduced traditional Ethiopian cuisine to me over four years ago, something that she and her family had been enjoying in Ann Arbor for many years, at a place called Blue Nile. Ethiopian is very vegetarian-friendly, which was great for them, as vegetable dishes hold nearly if not a higher regard than meat dishes in that cuisine. Now that I have been eating Ethiopian for quite a while, I would definitely be missing one of my favorite cultural cuisines if I had not been introduced.

The key to Ethiopian, if you're unfamiliar, is the plate and the utensils. They are one and the same -- a flat yet pillowy bread called injera. It is very simple, with a slight tang and is very often made with whole wheat flours. The food is served either family style or individually on a large tray or basket covered in injera. Simultaneously, you are served more injera on the side, which you literally use instead of a fork or spoon to scoop up and eat the various items on the injera-covered plate or basket. I found that Harar Mesob had one of the moistest and most “whole-wheaty” injeras that I have tried, which was very enjoyable. It makes for some pretty fun eating, but incredibly tasty as well.

What makes this relatively plain bread such a tasty messenger? It's all in the wat! The what? The wat! Yes, that is the name of the different stew-like morsels of food that are served up atop the injera. The vegetable offerings found at Harar Mesob include spicy red lentils, mild yellow lentils, succulent collard greens, flavorful cabbage, a little potato salad, a cool, tangy tomato-onion-jalapeño-vinaigrette salad and various others. They are all very rich in spices and flavors and not rich due to excessive fat in their base. That’s what I love about Ethiopian cuisine, and Harar Mesob does it exquisitely.

I didn’t even get around to mentioning the meat wat yet. At Mesob, lean chunks of beef or lamb are used in most of the dishes. While several have clarified butter or vegetable oil in the base, many of them are simply sautéed in an amazing spice blend along with some jalapeño, garlic and onion. The meat sampler includes a chicken dish, called doro wat which is Ethiopia’s national dish. It is spicy and has chicken on the bone, stewed with a red sauce, and with a peeled hard boiled egg. It is quite a departure from a normal Ethiopian wat, which all seem a bit simpler, but is really quite a treat. All of the meat wat are filled with tenderness and flavor and really are to-die-for.

At a small price of $9-$14 for an absolutely filling portion of food, Harar Mesob not only does Ethiopian extraordinarily well, but quite affordably, cozily and pretty healthily. Not bad in my book. Maybe that’s why we walk up there at least once a week for dinner – probably the best endorsement I can give a place.

So in case you’re still in the dark about Ethiopian food and its finger-licking goodness, head to Harar Mesob, tear yourself off a piece of injera, scoop up some wat and eat it all in one bite. You will enjoy it immensely, and you won’t stop thinking about it. I sure can’t!

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