Thursday, December 12, 2013
John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer:Wed, April,22, 2009. Easmeret Telu owns and operates Asmara at 51 Oak st. in Portland seen here making injera flat bread.
And it's much less expensive, as repeat customer Charles Ipcar said, than a $1,500 round-trip ticket.
The menu offers a variety of stews and vegetarian dishes. Unless you request rice and a fork, dinner entrees are served on the wide, soft surface of injera, an enormous pancake that shows multiple holes where its leaven has bubbled up and escaped, keeping the texture springy and elastic.
This bread, made from a grain called teff, will be your eating utensil as you tear off its edges and scoop lamb stew with okra and beef stew with peppers. The cabbage and carrot dish and rich chopped kale and collard greens are other alluring attractions in the middle of the plate.
Owner and chef Asmeret Teklu opened her restaurant with her husband Semere Yehdego in 2004. She both welcomes her customers to dinner and cooks the meal. She said she is not the same person as the young girl in a photo on the wall carrying a baby on her back, but she has the same sweet smile and calm welcoming face.
Her restaurant is painted a marine blue on its lower walls and pale blue above, and is decorated with a hide apron-like garment embroidered with cowry shells and wood bas-relief sculptures of gorillas, giraffes and elephants.
Several well-known brands of beer ($3.75) are served.
The only wine available is a honey wine that is made here with honey and golden raisins. The small size ($3.95) is served in an 8-ounce glass bottle with a metal stopper. Cloudy, pale gold and slightly sweet, this honey wine has more flavor than some bottled meads and works nicely as an accompaniment for the spicy stews.
Appetizers, such as sambusas ($1.95 for beef, $1.75 for vegetarian), little fried packets with savory filling, and cauliflower and broccoli coated in a chick-pea flour batter and fried ($6.75), tend to appear about the same time as the main meal.
A shared platter in the African tradition carries two wide injera, folded over and overlapping in the middle, with two entrees and two vegetarian dishes along with two servings of a refreshing salad made with chopped romaine and tomatoes.
Okra beghie ($12.50), lamb cooked with okra in a spicy sauce, was unctuous with okra, and hot enough to make the lips burn. The tender chunks of meat retained their own identity after long braising. Wrapped in a piece of injera with its slight tang, the meat revealed its sweetness.
Beef tibsi ($11.95), a beef stew with green peppers, onions and tomatoes, was less tender, but offered a chewy texture to contrast with the delicate bread. Chicken tibsi ($11.95) with fat chunks of white chicken meat held a little heat along with tender green peppers, onions and tomatoes.
But best of all on the wide platters are the vegetarian dishes, and those can be the first to be eaten up.
Tsebhi hamli or stewed greens, long-cooked kale and collard greens ($9.95 served as a main dish, or served as an accompaniment for the price of a meat entrée) are very tender from long cooking. Seasoned with several spices, they carry as rich and green a taste as you could imagine.
Alitcha ($9.95 served as a main dish, or available for the price of a meat entrée) is a magnificent mixture of tender cabbage, carrot and potato in a light yellow sauce. Birsen, or stewed red lentils ($9.95 served as a main dish, or available for the price of a meat entrée) has a wonderful nutty flavor, perhaps the consequence of some roasting of the lentils or the spices used in the mixture.
Fou'l, a fava beans stew ($9.95), is made with tomatoes, hot peppers, onions and feta cheese. The beans are cooked to a very soft and creamy stage, and seasoned with a heat that is mild and yet enlivening.
A lucky dinner party could share the vegetarian sampler ($32.50) with ''hearty portions'' according to the menu, of all the vegetarian dishes. As well as what is already mentioned here, those include shiro, made with roasted ground chickpeas and red pepper; sauteed spinach cooked with onions and berbere; spicy okra and potatoes cooked with onions; and spicy potatoes in a hot spicy sauce.
Dessert is either baklava, purchased elsewhere, or ligamat (3.95), fried balls of dough spiced with salt, sugar and cayenne and served with a maple syrup dipping sauce, which was unfortunately not available on my visit. African coffee ($2 a cup, $2.75 a pot) is also served.
N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of ''Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.'' Visit English's Web site, www.chowmaineguide.com.