Well, it finally happened -- For the first time I, Jason Storch, actually enjoyed an Ethiopian meal. For those of you that think I don't actually pay attention to comments, well..you're wrong. Back when I posted about Zed's, a couple people, through comments and emails, told me about Harambe in Adams Morgan. I noticed it again last weekend when I ate next store to it at El Tamarindo, so this week, I decided to give it a try since it's Mother's Day weekend and mother-to-be Amy loves Ethiopian food. (It turns out though, that Harambe is Eritrean, not strictly Ethiopian.)
I was a little hesitant to try Harambe, as are many people when they see a restaurant with no one in it. Last week when I looked in the window, there were maybe two tables taken. This week, as we approached the restaurant, there was only a single table with people at it.
"OK. Appearances aren't everything," I told myself as I opened the front door.
The restaurant is sparsly decorated -- the space has an old eclectic feel, but the furniture has a modern spin on it. Candles line the walls, but none of them are lit. In the rear of the restaurant by the bar, there was a single bar table with a group of men smoking by it, most likely friends of the manager with whom they were talking non-stop. Perhaps they were the owners or friends of the owner. Pretty much the whole night, one person would leave, and then about five minutes later, another would appear, they'd all greet him happily and bring out some food for him. Some smooth jazz played over the sound system.
The menu was pretty small -- no desserts that I could see -- Maybe they're on a separate menu. Also, the first page had pasta on it of all things, which I found really weird...at first. There were only three appetizers: Sambusas, chicken or beef soup, and Azifa (lentil salad). Under the appetizers is a section for pasta. On the menu it says "Experience this Italian favorite improved upon by influences from the east." Thinking back now, I probably should have at least ordered the pasta for $6 to see what it was like, but the ignorance of my white-suburban upbringing reared it's ugly head, causing me to raise an eyebrow and say, "There's something not right about pasta on an Ethiopian restaurant's menu." At that point Amy (with her photographic memory) recalled that almost all of the desserts on the menus at Meskerem and Zed's are Italian.
"Maybe there's an Italian influence in Ethiopia that we don't know about," she stated. It turns out, she was right. In 1889, Italy had significant influence over Ethiopia through a treaty where Italy thought that Ethiopia was its protectorate. Ethiopia, however, had a differing opinion and when Italy tried to invade Ethiopia in 1896, Ethiopia fought back the invaders. Through another treaty, Italy was allowed to keep a base in Eritrea. Then in 1991, Eritrea gained it's independance from Ethiopia and there have been ongoing border disputes between the two countries ever since. Since Harambe serves Eritrean food, perhaps the reason that they have pasta on their menu is because they had the greatest Italian influence due to the base being located there. It's amazing what you can learn from food. OK. Enough with the history lesson already.
The rest of the menu is traditional Ethiopian, or should I say Eritrean fare (I'm starting to get confused myself). Tibbs, FitFit, Wat, Kitfo, Gored Gored, all with slightly differently spelled names than other similar places we've eaten at. We ended up ordering a couple vegetarian sambusas, Harambe Tibbs (small morsels of steak in a sauce with onions, tomatos and jalapenos), Dorho (typically Doro Watt at other Ethiopian restaurants -- chicken in a garlic, onion and ginger sauce with a hard-boiled egg), and Shiro (pureed chick peas and mixed vegetables). The sambusas were rather good and probably better than other sambusas I've had. The outside crust was light and flakey and the inside filling, made with lentils, onions, and jalapenos, was juicy and spicy. One thing Harambe likes to put in their food more than anything else is fresh jalapenos and I appreciated the extra spice they added to each of the dishes.
Our entrees were all very good as well. The beef in the Harambe Tibbs was tender and all of the ingredients seemed fresh. I didn't get the sense that our dishes were sitting on a stove all night waiting for us to order them. As with the sambusas, the entrees were adequately spiced. A nice balance was added to the meal with the Shiro which was sweet and complemented the other two spicier dishes.The only complaint that we had was that the Shiro was completely pureed and smooth and we would have liked a little texture to it, but I think it was served as it is actually supposed to be. Compared with the Tibbs, the Dorho was a little bland. Entrees were served with a variety of vegetable sides (collards, spinach, cabbage, etc.), all of which were nice compliments to the main courses.
I tried a new beer called Asmara. It's brewed in the city of Asmara in Eritria. It had a creamy, hoppy flavor to it that matched the spicyness of the food rather well. This was the first place I've been to where I saw this beer being served. Don't even bother with the wine menu at Harambe. Most of the wines are those that you find at the local corner store in your neighborhood. The good news is that you wont find them charging $30 of the $5 bottle of Sutter Home Merlot -- it's more like $12.
As usual, we ordered way too much food and left a lot on the plate when we were done. Something about the injera just fills us up really fast. Of course, we didn't order any dessert. Our service was typical of and Ethiopian restaurant: not really quick and we had a hard time understanding our waitress, but it's all part of the atmosphere I guess. The manager came around to check on us at one point in the meal, which was nice. Now on to the financials...
Most of the entrees are only $9 - the most expensive being the combination dishes that are $13. Vegetarian entress are only $6! This was an extremely economical meal for us at $41 where we ordered three entrees, two appetizers, and I had two beers. Overall I wasn't completely blown away by this meal, but it was one of the better Ethiopian places I've eaten at, and that says a lot.
1771 U Street NW (corner of U and 18th)
Dress Code: Casual
Parking: Street Parking - Good luck with that in Adams Morgan
Reservations: You don't need them
Smoking: I saw people smoking by the bar
Amy's Bathroom Rating: Old and run-down but clean and well-stocked.
Nearest Metro: Dupont Circle