The Ambassador of Abyssinia | San Diego Reader

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, medium.

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 entrée.

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 kilwa.

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 appetizers.

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!

 – Naomi Wise

Muzita Bistro
 (Very Good)
4651 Park Boulevard (south of Adams Avenue), University Heights, 619-546-7900
HOURSTuesday–Thursday 5:00–10:00 p.m., Friday–Saturday until 11:00 p.m.; Sunday until 9:00 p.m.
PRICESStarters, $8–$12; entrées, $9–$21 (most about $16).
CUISINE AND BEVERAGESEthiopian/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 HITSTeff-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 KNOWSeveral 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.