Ethiopian food can be a tough sell for people who haven't tried it before. It consists of piles of mush, usually in variations of brown, and because you eat with your fingers, you often make a mess of yourself. On the other hand, those piles of mush are usually delicious, as is injera, the spongy fermented bread that you tear with your fingers and use to scoop up the food. There are usually tons of vegetarian choices at Ethiopian restaurants, and the West Village's Meskerem in particular offers up lots of great options.
Although it's listed as an appetizer, the azefa ($4.75) is substantial enough that it could serve as a refreshing entrée all on its own. It's a rustic mix of lentils and chopped onions dressed with lemon juice, vinegar, and mustard. The dish is served as a package to be opened and comes wrapped in room temperature injera. The contrast between the soft lentils and the crunchy onions, combined with the sharpness of the mustard, makes for a satisfying experience.
The vegetarian combo ($13.75) offers a variety of the different vegetarian options, also served on injera and with another piece of injera on the side. In the top row you can see string beans (slight sweet with tomato and carrots), spicy white beans with awaze (a blend of hot peppers and other spices), oily collard greens, and cabbage with potatoes in a mild curry sauce. The bottom row features miser alech (puréed lentils in a curry sauce), miser wat (puréed lentils in a spicy berbere sauce), shro wat (ground chickpeas with berbere sauce), and another chickpea preparation with garlic and ginger. Each one was great on its own, but the real fun part is towards the end of your meal when the different piles start to blend together and you get even more combinations of flavors.
Meskerem is not going to win any design awards—the narrow space means you'll probably have to constantly scoot your chair around to accommodate other diners, and the vertigo-inducing stairs leading to the entrance seem poorly thought out. Similarly, Ethiopian food may not be the most visually appealing, but the flavors more than make up for it.
124 Macdougal St, New York NY 10012 (map) 212-777-8111