The gourmet ghetto along Park Boulevard — that international stretch of quality dining in the heart of University Heights — has a new prime-time date spot.
My guess: Couples go to Muzita Abyssinian Bistro for its fresh, uncomplicated take on Ethiopian and Eritrean food — it balances out romantic complications. Or it’s because the converted bungalow is low-lit, cozy, somewhere you and the S.O. would happily hole up during a monsoon.
All right, it’s the eating with your hands part: very sensual.
And Abel Woldemichael, a fine-boned restaurateur with dreadlocks hanging like dark ropes down his back, is there to make sure your date isn’t stressful. Woldemichael and his wife, Yorda Tesfamichael, opened Muzita last October. In between the hard work of getting the traditional East African dishes cooked by his wife and his mother, Letenegus Araya, onto the rough wooden tables, Woldemichael takes time to give backstory. (Those photos are Yorda’s hands, painted with henna on their wedding day. Muzita is named after a sister, a kindhearted cook recovering from an aneurysm.)
Unrushed even when Muzita nears its 50-person capacity on weekends, Woldemichael will trot over a small vial of a sand-like grain called teff to explain what the spongy, sour Injera bread is made of.
The dining experience here is for the easygoing, too — because you “throw away the fork and use your hands.” It’s Muzita’s mantra, and custom in the East African region (aka Abyssinia).
You tear off a piece of Injera and use it like a utensil to pinch bite-size portions of your meal. This will be explained during the culture lesson your servers give you (“Have you been here or had Ethiopian before?”), as they hand out prepackaged wet cloths to clean your hands and suggest you eat family-style.
Say yes, and a big platter of Injera is spread out like pizza dough and topped with your table’s entrees and side dishes (stewed vegetables, collard greens any Southerner will appreciate or lentils).
Expect to see a menu with African names alongside a full English description. But doesn’t Teff Encrusted Bamya sound better than fried okra? Whatever you call the breaded veggie with roasted tomato and caramelized cippolini onion, it’s sweet, creamy and crunchy. The cornmeal-coated Crispy Calamari Kilwa, served with brined peppers and a lemon-herb dipping sauce, is gritty goodness. The Azifah Fitfit, red lentils, has a smoky, bottom-of-the-pot feel.
While you wait for the main event (remember, there are just two cooks), get to know the Mess (honey wine) or luscious Golden Kaan Pinotage, a heavy South African red that’s like eating a berry pie by yourself.
Anything Muzita does with lamb is memorable. And for weeks you will have flashbacks about the way your Prawn Kilwa exploded deliciously in your mouth. The seared ono, a thick cut of fish with only a faint ginger-and-butter spice, is not as impressive — especially when you could get the African equivalent of chicken and gravy instead. Called Tsebhi Dorho, the drumstick has an inch of an earthy spice rub — berbere — clinging to it. You will coldly take note if your date snags the last bite of it.
If you have had Ethiopian food before, you will recognize these dishes, although the Woldemichaels are from neighboring Eritrea. What’s the difference between the two? Not much, when it comes to food. As Abel Woldemichael says with an easy smile, it’s like comparing food from Northern and Southern Italy. Only the Italians really notice the difference: It’s all pasta to you.
Muzita Abyssinian Bistro
4651 Park Blvd., University Heights; (619) 546-7900 or muzita.com
THE FOOD: Better ingredients and atmosphere than your average Ethiopian restaurant.
THE SCENE: African hospitality in a funky part of University Heights, plus patio dining.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Appetizers, $8 to $15; salads, $8 to $12; vegetarian dinners, $9 to $13; meat entrees, $16 to $21. Beer, $3.50; wine by the glass and bottle. Desserts, $9.
DON’T MISS: The okra, aka Teff Encrusted Bamya. And Mess (honey wine), but beware its sneaky alcohol content. Muzita’s owner warns, “Mess will mess you up.”
– Keli Dailey, SignOnSanDiego.com