When I first discovered kitfo, an Ethiopian dish involving raw ground beef, I thought I had hit food heaven. I have since been scouring the city in search of the best kitfo in Seattle, and have narrowed it down to the final two. Because dinner is not kitfo on its own, I rated each restaurant on multiple basis.
Entrant 1: Dahlak is actually an Eritrean restaurant (Eritrea being a small nation which seceded from Ethiopia in 1993 and thus shares culinary tradition), and is located on Rainier, just south of the Oh Boy Oberto factory.
Enrant 2: Meskel is right in the heart of Seattle’s Ethiopian restaurant district at the corner of 26th and Cherry–less than 100ft from at least two other previously eliminated restaurants.
While Meskel’s ambience is quite nice, the individuality of Dahlak’s is quite noticeable. Meskel is a pleasant room in what appears to be an old house, with a bar downstairs and a patio for pleasant outdoor seating outside. The rich colors of the room evoked a tribal feel, and the non-functioning fountain on the patio offered a European feel. The statue appeared to be a cross between the Mannequin Pis and Michelangelo’s David. Dahlak, on the other hand is built in an old strip club and retains a dull mustiness in the air from years of windows never being open. The air smells of the incense used in traditional coffee ceremonies. The TV constantly blares Eritrean television, which varies from pasta making to what has to have been the Horn’s version of the Telenovela. Winner here, based on originality and oddity is Dahlak.
The service at Dahlak has never been up to 5 star quality, but the only problem we have ever had is that they never seem to want to bring us the check. When we finish, they appear to assume we have no need to leave. Perhaps no need to pay? After much flagging, there is always much apologizing and the bill appears. At Meskel, the service appeared to lack any stars in quality. I’m usually quite patient with people who don’t speak English, as I have twice held jobs waiting tables in a foreign language and understand the difficulty. However, simply making no effort to understand nor be understood to me is almost insulting as a customer. When we got our beers, it appeared that one had come from a different batch–the ‘we got beat up on the way to the restaurant’ group of bottles. The Harar, Ethiopian beer, was quite tasty, the one bottle did taste different than the others, but not really any worse. However, despite the fact that by definition kitfo is raw (though our waitress at Dahlak always double checks that we know this), and despite our specifying RAW kitfo in our order (because they did have a second dish on the menu that was the same, but cooked), a food runner brought us cooked kitfo. When informed, she slammed the dish onto the next table, and looked like we had just told her that her child was ugly. While portioning the lamb onto our injera, she also dumped some into one of the beers. When she finally understood our explaination of this, she again gave us the ugly child look. She did bring a new beer, but not a new glass, nor did she remove the beer with meat floating in it. The edge here, mostly based on not making us feel responsible for servers’ mistakes, is easily Dahlak.
One dish that is considered standard to judge an Ethiopian restaurant by is the vegetable combo. A large platter of injera is spread with a variety of vegetarian dishes. The platter at Dahlak is enormous with many huge mountains of various dishes: okra, red lentil, yellow lentils, salad, etc. All are good (though my personal favorite is the yellow lentils) and the mustard greens are somehow the best green thing that has ever passed these lips, but alas, they are the same things that you find on many menus in this city, albeit the best versions of them. The veggie plate at Meskel arrived with promise of new adventures–garlic sauce rubbed injera (possibly a wat?), the cooling cheese I know from kitfo, something that tasted a lot like peanuts (possibly their version of Shiro, though it was a yellower color than shiro I have had before). Many more sauces and fewer large mounds of food. For originality, I select Meskel as the winner here.
And the final contest, is of course, the dish that is by far and away the best invention in all of food, Kitfo. Kitfo is made of raw ground beef topped with hot butter and berebere, an Ethiopian spice. You wrap the spicy meat up in a piece of injera, the bread, and add a little of the fluffy, cool cheese to act as a foil to the spiciness. And then there is a party in your mouth. The meat at Meskel was somewhat brighter of a red, giving it a more fresh taste and a juicier feel in the mouth. The meat was not spicy when it arrived, but it did come with a parmesan shaker full of berebere, which we applied liberally. At Dahlak, the meat comes spiced and a small spoon and bit of berebere are provided, though often unnecessary. The butter seemed to have absorbed into the meat better at Meskel, as the bottom of the bowl at Dahlak allowed for viewing of the leftover grease, which was not what one needed to see. The cheese, as far as I could tell, was identical, though we did not quite have enough to get through all the meat at Meskel. The winner here, for freshness and quality was definitely Meskel, bucking my roomate’s and my thoughts that after Dahlak, the search was over.
While this ends, thusly in a tie, I have to give the Iron Chef: Battle Kitfo to Dahlak, because while their food was slightly less good than Meskel’s, it was by a smidge, where as their service was worlds ahead. Either way, kitfo maybe the gift of the Ethiopians to the daring Seattle eater, so I reccomend getting out and trying some, if you have a love for raw beef or might like to.
**To quote the health department warning at the bottom of the menu at Smith: Raw meat can kill you.
***I love raw meat. And it hasn’t killed me yet. If you wanna preach to me about the dangers of eating this, be aware that I have no interest in hearing it. Wuss. Get out and try sushi and carpaccio and tartar and all the other delicious things you are missing out on.
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