Queen of Sheba
650 10th Avenue, New York NY 10036 (b/n 45th and 46th; map); 212-397-0610; shebanyc.com
Veggie Options: 6 appetizers, 8 stews, 1 sampler platter
Cost: Appetizers $3.50-6, stews $9.50-11.50, sampler platter $12.50
Tucked away on the outskirts of the theater district is the non-descript Queen of Sheba—one of a relatively limited number of Ethiopian restaurants in the city. It's not surprising that this cuisine is well-suited for vegetarians—rich stews of lentils, chickpeas, and vegetables are plentiful. But it's the utterly unique food, flavors, and dining experience that makes Ethipoian a must-try for anyone, vegetarian or no.
A glass of Ethiopian honey wine ($7) is certainly worthwhile if you like your wine sweet. Essentially a variant of mead, it's only a bit less sweet than a dessert wine, with a clear honey flavor; very tasty.
The Lentil Sambousa ($3.50) are not too dissimilar from Indian samosas—these fried triangles of dough are stuffed with a spiced lentil filling and served with a richly-spiced dipping sauce. For all of its familiarity in shape, size, and presentation, the complex blend of spices used is distinctly Ethiopian.
If there's one major takeaway from this review, it's that you should definitely order the sampler platter. The Sheba Vegetarian platter ($12.50) comes with a perfectly-sized helping each of 7 different vegetarian stews. Not only does it make deciding what to order infinitely easier, but the variety you get makes the meal all the more interesting and delicious. One by one, here's what we got:
1) Atakilt Wot: String beans and carrots cooked in a seasoned tomato sauce.
2) Misir Wot: Split lentils stewed with onion, garlic, and a blend of mild herbs.
3) Ater Kik Alecha: Split pea cooked with onion, garlic, and olive oil; spiced with turmeric and other mild spices.
4) Cabbage Wot: Cabbage, carrots, and potato are cooked in onion, garlic, and turmeric.
5) Shiro: Split peas are milled with onions, herbs, and berere—a blend of red pepper and over 20 spices that gives dishes a deep dark red hue.
6) Shimbra Asa: Chickpea flour is molded into small dumplings (they only look like meatballs) and gets sautéed with a berere sauce.
7) Gomen Wot: Collard greens that have been steamed with mild seasonings and olive oil.
While all were tasty and interesting, the split pea and lentil dishes definitely ranked among my favorites and tended to be richer in flavor.
This of course is served with heaping pile of injera—traditional Ethiopian flatbread. Injera is made from teff, a high-protein grain, which is fermented for three days before being cooked on a hot plate. The result is thin, soft, and unexpectedly pliable, with a slight sour tang from the fermentation process.
We also ordered Butecha ($9.45)—milled chickpeas cooked in lemon, olive oil, shallots, and diced jalapeños—the only vegetarian dish not included in the sampler platter. It also happened to be the least flavorful out of everything we ordered, and probably worth skipping.
At some point you may notice something missing—no forks, no knives, no spoons. Ethiopian food is traditionally served sans silverware, and injera is the sole vehicle for eating all of the various stews. The underside of the bread is covered in millions of tiny holes, making the injera perfect for absorbing the rich sauces.
The sheer variety of flavors, spices, and textures makes Ethiopian cuisine a treat for the senses. Vegetarians will have no problems dining here, but meat eaters are equally bound to love the rich stews, sauces, and best of all—getting to eat with your hands. It may be the most exciting pre-theater dinner you can find.