Eritrean Artisty –
By Maria Desiderata Montana
Senior Food and Wine Critic
No forks, no spoons, no knives, no problem! Muzita in University Heights is the ideal destination for sharing a traditional Abyssinian (Eritrean/Ethiopian) meal with family and friends.
Open since October, Muzita has its own distinct personality, boasting consistency, hospitality and cleanliness. Whether you’re in the mood for casual dining or a special occasion, this popular eatery is an unforgettable neighborhood hideaway — from the African music and East African decor to the aroma of spices and homemade cooking. You have the choice of dining inside or on the cozy outdoor patio.
Upon entering the restaurant, I was pleasantly surprised when owner Abel Woldemichael greeted me by speaking Italian, explaining that he is from Eritrea, a country in Northeast Africa, which was colonized by the Italians. He was proud to further inform me that he serves an amazing Italian tiramisu for dessert, and that soon he will offer spaghetti with a spicy sauce.
Woldemichael and his wife own the restaurant and the recipes are from his mother. “We all cook together here as a family, with some great assistance from the kitchen crew,” he said. “I am not a professional cook, not even close, but after a long day at the office, cooking allows me to express a different side of me.”
The atmosphere is lively and authentic, complete with a knowledgeable wait staff that will guide you through the menu. “Our guests comment that the first time that they walk into Ghezan (our house) they feel at ease, as if they have been coming here for a long time,” said Woldemichael. “They say that this is the most hospitable place they have ever visited.”
An appetizer favorite, the simosas are crispy-fried pastries stuffed with luscious ingredients including alitcha (mixed vegetables), hamli (collards and spinach), and dorho tsebhi (braised chicken). Another great starter choice is the tender and juicy deep-fried okra fingers. Impressive beverage selections include a traditional fermented honey wine that is sweet, but goes well with the spiciness of the foods. Or choose an Ethiopian beer. My husband enjoyed a Meta Lager that was light with a fruity after tone. I adored the Hakim Stout, a rich and flavorful dark beer.
Diners can opt to share large platters of food, served family style. An Ethiopian staple, the injera bread is made from a grain called “teff” (one of the smallest grains in the world). It has a spongy pancake-like texture, and guests tear off the bread, one piece at a time, to scoop up the food. One of the most popular dishes with the guests is the kitfo. It is raw (or rare) hand-minced beef with marinade rub in mitmita (a spicy seasoning) and spiced clarified butter, served with ajibo (homemade cottage cheese). “Our guests love the distinct flavor,” said Woldemichael.
Most of the dishes contain exotic spices such as cardamom, coriander and cloves. Seasonal items are featured every three to four months and traditional dishes will continue to be on the menu. The beggie kilwa consists of sautéed New Zealand leg of lamb with a savory house herb blend, tesmi, garlic and serrano chilies. Beef lovers can order the siga kilwa made with sautéed all natural grass-fed Brandt beef. If you prefer fish, opt for the ono tsebhi — tesmi seared ono with roasted spaghetti squash and spicy tomato sauce — or the prawn kilwa with marinated prawns, house herb blend and white wine awaze sauce.
Vegan dishes are available. My personal favorite is the hamli; a nice blend of braised spinach and collard greens. The timtimo consists of delicious red Egyptian lentils. The alitcha atakilti is a mix of seasonal vegetables, potatoes, tomatoes, onions and green beans all stewed in an aromatic sauce. “My favorite dish is kantisha kilwa,” said Woldemichael. “The combination of zucchini and mushrooms, pan-seared in spices, is mouthwatering.”
For dessert, the Italian-inspired tiramisu consists of espresso-soaked ladyfingers layered with creamy mascarpone cheese and whipped cream. Pair with a cup of fresh brewed Ethiopian coffee and you’ll never want to leave.
Maria Desiderata Montana is an award-winning food and wine journalist, editor, and published author based in San Diego. She gained an appreciation of European cuisine from her parents, who were born and raised in Calabria, Italy. Visit her website at www.sandiegofoodfinds.com.
Muzita Abyssinian Bistro, located at 4651 Park Boulevard in University Heights, is open Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m., and on Friday and Saturday until 11p.m. Closed Monday. Enjoy the new happy hour at Muzita Thursday through Sunday from 3 p.m.-5 p.m. Brunch and catering coming soon. For more information, call (619) 546-7900 or visit www.muzita.com