Bland on the Run

Who pinched the chiles at the new Ethiopian?

There was certainly nothing wrong with the doro wett ($14). In fact, it was superb. A thigh and drumstick floundered in the thick and spicy red sauce, and the submerged mystery hump turned out to be a boiled egg. No utensils here, so we wrapped our fingers in the spongy flatbread to bludgeon the egg into edible pieces, and wrench bits of chicken from the bone. After devouring the dish, we held up our hands and cackled—they were stained blood red like a murderer's.

Our foursome was chilling in the city's newest Ethiopian restaurant, Zoma, at 113th Street and Frederick Douglass, in a neighborhood recently dubbed SoHa ("South Harlem") by real estate developers looking to sell shiny new condos. Zoma's interior is relentlessly modern, with none of the mesob basket tables or walls plastered with rugs and touristic gewgaws that were once standard in Ethiopian restaurants. Rather, a discreet collection of anthropological artifacts are displayed museum-style on bone-white walls, including silver jewelry and wooden neck pillows. A well-lit bar glows eerily on one side of the darkened room. While Zoma rarely seems to pour the Ethiopian honey wine called tej, there's a list of Western wines with mercifully low mark-ups, including a pleasantly aggressive Ravenswood Zinfandel that usually runs $11 in liquor stores. Zoma charges a modest $21.

Alas, nothing else on the menu can quite match the spice-intensive thrill of the doro wett. Though nicely prepared with wholesome ingredients, many selections suffer from a mind-numbing blandness in a cuisine that relishes hotness. A stir-fry of lamb tidbits, called awaze tibs ($15), arrives dry and not tasting much like lamb. "Awaze" is a complicated red chile paste, and the dish had none of the heat or subtlety that it usually confers. And what happened to the cardamom-scented butter that accompanies this dish at Washington, DC, Ethiopian spots? Maybe Mayor Bloomberg has declared SoHa a fat-free zone. Prepared the same way with chicken, doro tibs is every bit as blah, and so is Zoma tibs, which commits the same crime with beef. Besides doro wett, the best thing on the menu is gomen be siga ($13), a tasty swamp of collard greens and stewed beef. It succeeds admirably, maybe because it's not supposed to have any kick.

A good dining strategy at Zoma is to order the generous vegetarian combo ($17), which includes any four of the seven flesh-free main courses found on the menu. It easily feeds two. The art of vegetarian cooking is especially advanced in Ethiopia, since the Coptic Christians there observe 40 fast days a year, in which no fish, meat, or poultry may be consumed. The best of the seven-dish collection is buticha, a concentration of cool starch that tastes like cookie dough. A kinky cousin of hummus, it's made of chickpea powder flavored with lemons, purple onions, and olive oil. Despite the presence of jalapeños, it's not hot. The other highlight of the sand- and brick-colored heaps is misir wett, an elastic puddle of red lentils that tastes engagingly of ginger and cloves.

For the tender-tongued, for vegetarians, and for wine lovers, Zoma is something of a boon. But for anyone who craves the intense spiciness of Ethiopian food, Zoma can be real estate hell.

 
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