Friday, September 12, 2014

Bete Ethiopian in Silver Spring: An oasis of greenery and authentic Ethiopian cooking

We had not rehearsed this bit of theater, but when I placed an order for kitfo at Bete Ethio­pian Cuisine and Cafe, my dining companion and I both blurted out, as if on cue, that we’d really like the dish raw. Our waiter looked as if he had just been assaulted by two-person flash mob. If there was an air of desperation in our voices, we had reason.
A week or so earlier, we had been sitting on the back patio at Bete, enjoying a cool summer evening in this leafy retreat, feeling as if we were a thousand miles from the hyper-commercial, hermetically sealed real estate that defines downtown Silver Spring. We were laying waste to a platter of stews, salads and tibs — save for the brown mound of kitfo in the middle of our injera, looking like cafeteria-grade sloppy Joe meat. We had specifically requested the kitfo raw, but it had been cooked to a shade of russet, leaving behind a crumbly, virtually dry pile of ground beef that allowed the searing mitmita spice blend to attack our palates without resistance.
We practically held our breath as we waited for our second order of kitfo, wondering if the kitchen would honor our request this time around. What arrived on our oval of slightly sour injera was this glistening hill of burgundy-colored beef, as moist as bread dough. The minced meat felt cool, fresh and buttery on the tongue, each element providing a counterbalance to the spice blend’s full-frontal assault of heat and fragrance. It was a kitfo experience to savor like a cherished childhood memory.


Consistency, it would appear, is not Bete’s strong suit. Or maybe Bete, like so many other Ethio­pian restaurants, has been burned once too often by amateurs who recoil from the pleasures of raw kitfo. So the kitchen merely opts to play it safe and not waste its precious resources. Either way, you may need to press your server to receive an authentic Ethio­pian experience, but your pushiness will be rewarded.
Bete (“my house” in Amharic) is the latest eatery to take up residence in this freestanding two-story brick cottage, a sort of Cape Cod oasis in the corporate desert. Owner Teru Fentike opened Bete five years ago, her first stab at feeding the public the cuisine of her native country. Her compact menu shows admirable restraint, at least compared to the expansive lists found at other Ethi­o­pian eateries in this area teeming with East African flavors. Her focus would appear to be on quality, not quantity.
The place to eat here is on the back patio, under the shade of the giant princess tree, whose limbs and oversized heart-shaped leaves cover much of the dining area. You’ll likely be surrounded by expats: As Fentike told me, Ethio­pian natives love to dine among the greenery, which reminds them of the backyard gardens they left behind in the home country. Whether you’re Ethio­pian or not, sitting on the back patio also offers a far more charming atmosphere versus the scruffy, budget-minded decor inside (even with the multi-colored mesob baskets on each table).

Wherever you eat, make sure to order one of Bete’s vegetarian combos. It’s the only way to sample a wide selection of Fentike’s vegetable dishes, many of which are not available a la carte. I’m a fan of the kitchen’s approach to vegetables, cooking each to the texture that best suits it. My mild-mannered gomen, or collard greens, retained an essential toothsomeness, which prevented the collards from fading into nothingness. Likewise, the misir kik wot, or the spicy red lentils, provided a faint knobby resistance, the perfect complement to its knotty berbere sauce. But the veg dish that really captured my attention was the azifa, a cold green-lentil salad that’s still relatively rare on local menus. The salad’s lime-and-mustard-seed dressing offered pronounced blasts of acid at an Ethio­pian table often dominated by butter, spice and onions.
The meat dishes, at least when prepared to your desired temperature, could hold their own against the veg options. The semi-gamy lamb tibs were sweet with softened onions and gently spiced with the Ethio­pian butter known as niter kibbeh. The gored gored, these barely warmed chunks of rib-eye topped with chopped jalapenos, arrived thinly coated with awaze sauce and niter kibbeh, which supplied such a wallop of heat and flavor that you could ignore the fact you were chewing on rich, essentially raw beef. The kitchen’s worst performance, aside from that overcooked kitfo, was saved for an overly sweet and stringy doro wat, a dish so routinely mangled on these shores that I’ve almost stopped ordering it.

For those who believe spice has a place at the breakfast table, Bete opens at 9 a.m. with a small menu of dishes, including ful, the Egyptian staple of slow-cooked fava beans. The ful here is served Ethiopian-style, with the mashed beans topped with chopped jalapenos, cottage cheese and awaze sauce, a hot-and-earthy combination that I devoured with abandon. The Bete’s Platter comes with two types of scrambled eggs, one laced with a mild tomato sauce. When sprinkled with chechebsa, these berbere-spiked pieces of sauteed flatbread, the eggy bites assumed a personality that could frighten small children and the faint of heart.
Bete’s breakfast service includes coffee brewed from beans grown in just one country. I’ll give you exactly one guess on which country that is.
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