I first heard of Ethiopia from my father. As a Boy Scout in England, he was presented to Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie during an imperial visit to England. Perhaps that's why I can't wait to go to Makeda. The very thought of an Ethiopian restaurant conjures up visions of a darkly exotic place with elegant people of great beauty. After all, Ethiopia is the land of the Queen of Sheba. Though I don't know what to expect of the food, I am wonderfully surprised.
After I enter the restaurant and my eyes adjust to the dim light, a collection of tribal masks begins to take shape on the wall near my table. A closer look reveals that the colorful display actually is in the shop next door; the shopkeeper, part owner of the restaurant, takes full advantage of a glass wall that divides the spaces to display his wares to diners. A stage for weekend musical performances punctuates the other end of the room. Different levels of seating create a spaciousness that is very intriguing.
Ethiopian food is influenced by Arabic, Indian, and African cooking. The spicing is subtle and the textures soothing. Foods are served in communal dishes from which diners help themselves using pieces of injera, a soft, flat bread. Forks are provided with the appetizers, and the waiter delivers hot, wet cloths for cleansing your hands. Service here is casual but pleasant. The small wine list includes several South African selections.
Makeda's menu refers to only four items as appetizers: loubia, fresh green beans sautéwith spices; zaalouk, diced, pan-fried eggplant with spices; kefta, Moroccan meatballs; and d'jaj bi zitoune, marinated and sautéchicken tenderloins with green olives. All are worth ordering. Fit fit, similar to a Turkish shepherd salad, with chopped tomatoes, onions, and jalepeñpeppers over bits of injera, is listed as a salad but can double as an appetizer.
The menu divides main courses into beef, lamb, chicken, seafood, and vegetarian dishes, though most entrécan be adapted to any of the above. For example, beef, chicken, vegetables, lamb, or seafood can each be prepared with wat, a wonderfully thick, spicy sauce. Shrimp wat is very spicy and sloppy to eat, so if you crave seafood, try the more manageable assa tibs, haddock with herbs sautéin wine with an African salsa; it's delicious. I particularly enjoy doro alecha, a stew-like dish of chicken legs and thighs flavored with rosemary, ginger, jalepeñ peppers, and herbs, served with hard-boiled eggs dressed in a spicy dark sauce. Both gored gored and kitfo feature raw, chopped beef tenderloin in spicy sauces; you also can order kitfo lightly cooked.
Awaze, a sauce made from an Ethiopian honey wine called tej and various spices, is used to sweeten some dishes. I enjoy zilzil, which consists of delicious strips of lamb marinated in awaze and lightly stir-fried. I also like doro tibs, pieces of boneless chicken sautéin awaze with onions and hot peppers.
This is a place that takes good care of vegetarians, with dishes that include green lentils, purésplit peas, yellow split peas, Ethiopian green beans, and fresh collard greens sautéwith onions, garlic, ginger, and tomatoes.
Desserts are standard cakes brought in from an outside bakery. Opt for fresh fruit when it is available. --V. S.
338 George Street, New Brunswick (732-545-5115). Open Monday through Thursday, noon to 10:30 pm; Friday and Saturday, noon to midnight; Sunday, 1 to 10 pm. Wheelchair access easy. American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two without wine averages $52.