Move over, cassoulets and steaks au poivre, mousses and a l'orange sauces. As far as we're concerned, Ethiopian food is far more romantic than anything the French whip up.
Stews, known as wett at Ghenet (often called wat elsewhere), are served on an edible plate made from injera, a spongy, sour bread. Instead of using a fork or spoon, you tear off a piece of injera, then pinch a mouthful of meat or vegetables. Hands touch as you both reach for the lentil stew at the same time. Eyes lock as you chew its fiery meatiness or take a sip of tej, the ubiquitous honey wine. This charmless stretch of Park Slope falls away. It's pure primal amour.
Across the street from a gas station, this Ethiopian restaurant looks a tad sad from the outside. The awning has a few scuffs, the window a few dings. Inside, however, a carved metal screen covers the walls and a sisal-like material covers the ceiling. Low stools surround wooden tables. Looks can be deceiving, we're taught as kids, a fact we sometimes forget when it comes to restaurants--or dates. Ghenet has a scruffy exterior with a nicer interior. The food might not be beautiful, but it's good.
Our lentil sambusa ($7) arrived quickly, a variation on the stuffed, fried pastries found throughout South Asia and North Africa. Here, it came pre-cut, and the grayish lentils looked less appealing than they tasted. (See? Cliches can be true!) In addition to the hearty legume, there were hints of onion and chili pepper, almost sweet.
Generally indifferent service means you have plenty of time to chat, savor, and lounge along the long yellow bench, speckled with embroidered pillows, that extends like an L around the room. It also means that when we asked about the bright orange sauce that accompanies the sambusa, we were told, "it's one of those things they do," with an eyebrow cocked toward the kitchen.
All told, our vegetarian combination ($16.95, for one person) and Ghenet combination ($17.95, for one person) gave us a choice of seven dishes. We opted to get everything on one big plate, although separate plates can be arranged, allowing for the separation of flavors but preventing the aforementioned tactile encounters. And that's half the fun.
Two orders of mesir wett meant double the yumminess of this red lentil stew, cooked in berbere sauce. Perhaps the country's most common condiment, berbere consists of such spices as garlic, ginger, chilis, and other peppers, ground together and sun-dried. On its way to the table, unfortunately, the shiro wett had developed a skin that had to be peeled back before sampling this take on lentil stew, a pureed, muted version of the mesir wett.
Up close, injera resembles clusters of coral. Sometimes its lip-puckering tang overwhelmed the subtle flavors of the stews, leaving only the texture. The gomen, or collard greens, had been sauteed in clarified butter known as nitir kibe, heightening their slickness. Yet the bread's sourness actually augmented the acidity of the atkelt wett, cabbage, potatoes, and carrots.
Far sweeter were the carrots that populated the fasolia, string beans and carrots cooked in onions and butter. Ethiopian cooking features a lot of vegetarian dishes due, in part, to religious injunctions against eating meat at certain times of the year. But they do meat well too, as evidenced by the tenderness of the siga wett, beef in berbere sauce. The portions only appear small: somehow the bread and small bites of stew expands in the belly.
Eating like this sharpens the senses. Without a utensil, the food smells stronger, seems more immediate. The browns and reds look vivider. Since the waitstaff is probably watching videos on Facebook at the bar, you'll need to figure out which stew is which. If you close your eyes, you might be able to pick out cinnamon or tumeric on the tongue. Plus, eating with your hands is just plain fun. Ghenet is a sensual place, best for: a date you'd like to get messy with.
About the authors: Jessica Allen and Garrett Ziegler have been eating out together since 2002 and writing We Heart New York since 2006.