Ras Dashen, Ethiopian Flavour

Ras Dashen

For weeks I had been mentioning Ethiopian food to a colleague who wanted to sample some. Having been to a few Ethiopian restaurants in the city that I have reviewed and one that I hadn’t reviewed, I wanted to return to the latter. With my restaurant advisor joining us, Ras Dashen at 5846 N Broadway Street was the destination for some cultural dining after coming down from a Thanksgiving high.

Qezqaza Chai

Qezqaza Chai

Nice and spacious on the inside with seating that accommodates those who like traditional Ethiopian seating or those who prefer tables, Ras Dashen has a comfy feeling. The atmosphere is relaxing such that you can enjoy the complete dining experience while also engaging others in your party without competition from too much acoustics.

We started with qezqaza chai, which is cold red tea accented with spices commonly found in Indian tea, like cinnamon, cloves, and black peppercorns. Along with the tea we indulged cups of mereq, this version cooked with creamed lentils, boasting a flavour akin to puréed mild, sweet potato soup.

Mereq

Mereq

For the main platter, we spared no expense. In keeping with opting for variety, we ordered one chicken, one lamb, one seafood, and a round of vegetarian menu items. The chicken was doro wat, which was dark meat chicken and boiled egg in a spicy berbere sauce. The lamb dish was yebeg de berbere, succulent lamb stew bursting with bold spices. The seafood dish was asa wat, fillet tilapia in a dark berbere sauce that had been prepared from roasted, ground flaxseed. As to the vegetarian offerings, we had telba shimbera misser wat — puréed chickpeas, split peas, and flaxseed in a dark berbere sauce. There was kik alicha, which were puréed yellow split peas cooked with onions, garlic, ginger, and green peppers. We even had tikil gomen alicha — spiced cabbage, potato, and carrot stew. And a final vegetarian item we ordered was ethio salata, which came as romaine lettuce, green onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, and jalapeños. There wasn’t one item that we did not enjoy thoroughly, evident from the empty platter when we were done.

Communal Platter

Communal Platter

The finale was a plate of Ethiopian bread pudding topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. In the same vein of employing cinnamon and cloves in recipes, the bread pudding had both and a nice share of raisins, dates, and nuts. Served warm, it was a fantastic ending to a hearty and delectable cultural meal.

Ethiopian Bread Pudding

Ethiopian Bread Pudding

No Ethiopian meal is complete without tea or Ethiopian coffee. Although there was no Ethiopian coffee service, complete with toasting the beans and going through a ritual, a pot of Ethiopian coffee simply can’t be beaten. Those who have taken Ethiopian coffee will attest that it bests any franchise, chain, or independent coffeehouse trying to play like a franchise or chain. The same is applicable to the coffee at Ras Dashen.

Cup of Ethiopian Coffee

Ethiopian Coffee

When it comes to Ethiopian food, individuals either love it or hate it. It is best enjoyed in a communal setting with a group of friends or family. The injera bread may be a different flavouring on the palate for many because of the slight tangy taste, bordering on what a few may deem as sour. However, mixed with hearty sauces in the vegetables and meats, the whole dining experience is a winner. Chicago’s Edgewater community houses several Ethiopian restaurants, so you can get a good selection of Ethiopian fare from each. I highly recommend Ras Dashen for not only good food, but also for outstanding service and quality all around.

Ras Dashen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Demera Ethiopian Restaurant

Demera Ethiopian Restaurant

When friends come to visit Chicago, I often wonder where to take them for a proper Taste of Chicago. Many come with expectations of going to the usual tourist traps: Cheesecake Factory, any of the Chicago style pizzeria restaurants, some sports bar in Wrigleyville, Garrett’s Popcorn shop, and a few other dated restaurants like Hard Rock Café and Planet Rock. But you can get that fare from anywhere. Then again, I pick restaurants from a self-serving standpoint. If I’m treating, I’m getting what I want. With my recent guest, they did not want to go to any tourist magnets. They wanted international fare was.

Tej Addis Abeba Martini

After an afternoon of taking advantage of Shedd Aquarium, I offered up the suggestion for some Ethiopian food. So, we were off to Demera Ethiopian Restaurant at 4801 N Broadway Street. Nice and spacious on the inside, welcoming and homey per the service, this was a great option. We started with a glass of tej, which is honey wine, or rather the nectar of God. And there was the refreshing Addis Ababa martini.

Ethiopian Platter

Because this was my first dining experience at Demera Ethiopian Restaurant, I wanted to sample a few items from the menu. We had the doro wot. This came as two chicken legs in a rich barbecue gravy accented with ginger root, garlic, and onions and ayib cheese. There was ye-siga wot, which was the beef version of the doro wot. For vegetables, we ordered the split red lentils ye-misir wot and there was also the ye-dinich ena carrot alicha, consisting of potatoes and carrots stewed with onions, garlic, ginger, turmeric and special house seasoning. The ye-shimbra assa, ground chickpeas in a wot sauce, rounded out our vegetarian selections. And the ye-asa wot was the final offering that we opted for as a seafood selection. All served atop injera and with extra injera, there was only a smear of gravy on the platter when we were done.

Ethiopian Tiramisu

Not being in a rush, we sat and let our stomachs settle before requesting menus for perusal of desserts.  I ordered an Ethiopian style tiramisu. Instead of ladyfingers having been soaked in espresso, they had been soaked in Ethiopian buna, or Ethiopian coffee. The robust flavor of Ethiopian coffee actually makes the dessert have a stronger taste while not leaving an aftertaste. Drizzled with chocolate sauce, this was heaven. And if heaven wasn’t good enough, the sambussa definitely was perfection. The pastry was filled with with almonds, walnuts, cardamom, rose water, and saffron, and served over a homemade raspberry sauce that was not from a can, box, or jar.

Sambussa

Chicago’s Uptown neighbourhood is a location filled with many African restaurants and there is a lot of representation in Ethiopian dining. Demera is indeed one restaurant with an inviting atmosphere. Starting with a welcoming air, it is most delightful once the food arrives. For those who are not familiar with Ethiopian dining, the injera, which is the bread, is used for picking up the food. While the servers may accommodate those who prefer to use eating utensils,  the tradition way of eating Ethiopian food actually makes the experience fantastic. And if you go with a large group, it is a most beautiful way of sharing — food that is.


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Keren Kitchen — At Home for Eritrean

Keren Kitchen

Recently, I have made a decision to modify my diet so that I get back to ethnic food and seafood only. There was a point when I indulged friends who wanted to go to a lot of meat-centric American restaurants and my hunger somewhat got out of hand. I noticed that the flat tummy I had achieved was getting a little pudgy again. I simply cannot have that, but I shall not deprive myself of good food either. I can compromise: I shall eat plenty of what not contributing to bloating the bloody tire I had around my waistline.

Injera

Injera

Along with the change in my diet and consistent warmer weather, I am walking more. While strolling through West Lakeview, I wandered past a restaurant that looked very much like something family owned. At 1513 W. Irving Park Road is Keren Kitchen. Mostly Eritrean, there is also a Mexican component to the menu. Having been to DenDen Restaurant in Chicago’s Rogers Park, I was curious to see if Karen Kitchen would warrant a return visit.

Qulwa Dorho, Alicha Atar, Past Dish

Qulwa Dorho, Alicha Atar, Past Dish

I started with qualwa dorho, alicha atar, and past dish. The qualwa dorho came as chicken and tomatoes in a savoury gravy, accented with clarified butter. The alicha atar was very reminiscent of creamed lentils that I have had at several Ethiopian restaurants. The past dish consisted of potatoes, carrots, and green beans. I must say now that I won’t have to travel farther north to Rogers Park for Eritrean food now. Although I was dining solo, the dish was served on injera bread in the cultural manner. Being accustomed to eating Ethiopian food with my fingers, I applied the same technique here, completing the whole platter much to the server’s surprise.

Asa Qulwa

Asa Qulwa

With some room in the tummy, I opted to fill it with asa qualwa. This dish was not served on injera, It came as seasoned, plump tilapia on yellow rice with salad. For every article promoting fear propaganda about tilapia, I doubt the authors of the write-ups have had asa qualwa from Keren Kitchen. They would not write such drivel otherwise. Because this dish was substantial, I had half of it prepared for take-away so that I could enjoy it once more later when I was home.

Hazelnut Ice Cream

Hazelnut Ice Cream

For a dessert, I had hazelnut ice cream drizzled with caramel. Given all that I had eaten already, the ice cream was not only refreshing, but it was also light on the stomach. And because I always have my desserts without nuts, I was pleasantly surprised at how much of a nice accent the hazelnuts were. Topping it all off, I took tea with cinnamon and cardamom. I was in heaven, but I was almost there anyway after the first scoop of qualwa dorho.

Spiced Tea

Spiced Tea

Keren Kitchen opened doors for business November, 2014. The restaurant resides in what looks to have been a house that was converted for restaurant use. Because I did not try anything from the Mexican menu, I shall have to return for a sampling. What I had during my first visit was divine. The Eritrean and Mexican owners are absolutely outstanding, as was the service. During my afternoon visit, the restaurant was not filled, so I had time to talk to them about how Keren Kitchen came to be. And just when I decided to become more disciplined about what I eat, I happen upon this gem. I will become a regular.

Keren Kitchen on Urbanspoon

The Best Coffee, the Ethiopian Way

Royal CoffeeI joke about the fact that I would not make a good celebrity. I have no want for doing drugs. Drinking is not something I indulge to embarrassing excess. In the current day and age, sleeping around is a dangerous game of roulette. And I am not one for opening up my mouth and speaking in a stream of consciousness. Ah, but I love to eat. Paparazzi would grow tired of waiting in front of restaurants to snap photos of me partaking of some delectable dish. Tabloids would say that Gino eats constantly but somehow manages to maintain his athletic physique. His life is boring. Doesn’t the man do anything worthy of tabloid fodder?

The answer is NO!!!

Iced Coffee

Iced Coffee

A month ago I had gone to an Ethiopian coffee-house in Chicago’s Rogers Park. Because I was only passing through then, I wanted to return for a proper sit-down. I remembered how outstanding the service was. I also recalled how mouth-watering the food was that I had ordered for take-away. The temperatures in Chicago had been chilly, so I had spent most of my days inside. But with a mild reprieve from the nippy temperatures, I wanted to pander to my vegetarian palate. There is no way that you can go wrong with Ethiopian food.

It was back to Royal Coffee at 6764 N. Sheridan Road for my moment of food reckoning. The manager recognized me when I returned. She was sitting with a friend, engaged in conversation before looking up and greeting me. There are countless restaurants where I have gone on ongoing basis only to be greeted as though it was my first visit or as if I had painted graffiti on the front door. But at Royal Coffee I got a “hello” that made my trip worth more than its weight in gold and I had not even placed my order.

Vegetarian Plate

Vegetarian Plate

With the weather being nice, I ordered an iced coffee with milk and a vegetarian plate. Ethiopian coffee is strong and having milk added only takes the bite out of it a little. Strong and good are the only two descriptions that I can use to describe the coffee as I am sure the spirit of Juan Valdez is not appreciative of my shameless plug for how much I enjoy Ethiopian coffee. After a few minutes of reminiscing about my old neighbourhood, the food came and I snapped back into reality. The spiced spinach, yellow lentils, red lentils, and the potatoes and peas served up with injera bread were outstanding. Each dish came in individual bowls and after I had unrolled the injera bread and spooned each on to the bread, I was ready for action. With each bite I had all I kept thinking was Wow! I have been to almost every Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago and find it hard to say which one I love the most. Now Royal Coffee makes it that much harder. Because I love spicy food, I ordered the vegetarian plate with kick and it was quite evident when I could feel heat rising from my scalp. Yes! Yes! Yes!

Napoleon

Napoleon

I had my usual out-of-control appetite because I finished the entire vegetarian plate. It was practically for two people, yet I polished it off solo. Now that would have been a tabloid feature — celebrity Gino ate a sizeable plate of an Ethiopian dish and then ordered something else. The something else was dessert. Most Ethiopian desserts are full of nuts and while I don’t have a nut allergy, I have no love for the taste of nuts. I do smile when I see chocolate, though. So I had a Napoleon. The flaky crust, cream filling, and chocolate topping were well worth filling the room I saved in my belly. Oh how I enjoyed forking that rectangle of goodness into my mouth.

Cafe au Lait and Butter Cookies

Cafe au Lait and Butter Cookies

My former roommate had mentioned that she was in the area, so I sat and waited for her. While waiting, I had a large cup of cafe au lait with some homemade butter cookies. I have gotten to the point where I take my coffee without sugar. I was almost certain that I would need some sugar because Ethiopian coffee is so strong. Still, I required no sugar. I am convinced that Ethiopian coffee is made from a superior bean or the roasting method at Royal Coffee is remarkable. As to the cookies, bakeries that bake butter cookies that turn out to be compact sugar should have a few of the lovelies from Royal Coffee and correct their recipes accordingly. The cafe au lait and cookies were a perfect match.

Royal Coffee is one of those modest cafes that has no flash and flare, but everything about it makes it a magnet that draws you back for repeat visits. The coffee was superb, the food was spectacular, and the service was outstanding. I love Logan Square — where I live — and the feel of community at all of the eateries and specialty cafes, but I will certainly give in to the pull of Royal Coffee that keeps me catching the train back to my old neighbourhood. And when my friends who live in Washington, DC, come to Chicago and want a restaurant to compare to the fantastic Ethiopian restaurants that DC has, I can now add Royal Coffee to the list. Add it to your list. The only regret you may have is not having added it to your list well in advance of now.

Royal Coffee on Urbanspoon

Tomato, Tomahto, Ethiopian, Eritrean

Den Den Restaurant

When I moved to the Chicago metropolitan area in late 1995, my first stop was Northbook. I like to think that I fit into that area well, me being a high-end professional with an income that allowed me to live in a huge, empty apartment without the need of a flatmate. I was as cultured and snobbish then as the locals. I had given up my complete snooty New York City ways and become a laid back Midwest chap. A year into being a bit too relaxed, it was imperative that I moved closer to Chicago proper. The crickets during the summer were driving me cuckoo batty. So, my landing spot became Chicago’s North Side in the hip neighbourhood of Rogers Park. It felt a little like Berkeley, California, with a lot of Mexican influence. Bim, bom, bim.

The neighbourhood was chock full of taquerias and Mexican holes-in-the-wall. Trust me when I say that for the three years of me living in Rogers Park, I never tired of Mexican authenticity to my food. And after I had gotten accustomed to what turns of phrases could get me into trouble because Spanish spoken in the Caribbean has a lot more “colour” to phrases than what you get in Mexican Spanish, I was getting extra goodies in my take-out bags. Extras in the bags were always a good thing, unless you were a prude, a Dudley Do-Right, a total spazz. Well, fast forward to 2013 and I find that some other ethnic representation has dotted the Rogers Park landscape. They now have Iraqi, Iranian, and Eritrean restaurants a few blocks away from where I used to live.

You waited until I moved to do this, Rogers Park. How could you?

Spiced Tea

Spiced Tea

I met with a fellow colleague for dinner, after having been to Rogers Park to sample some Iranian food the previous week. We saw an Eritrean restaurant named Den Den Restaurant at 6635 N. Clark Street while on the way to the Iraqi restaurant and both yanked out our smartphones simultaneously to block a date for a visit. In the Edgewater neighbourhood, there are several Ethiopian restaurants, but Eritrean was new to me and definitely something I felt was worthy for Chicago Alphabet Soup. Friday came around. We both had left work at a reasonable time. And the plan for some love on a platter was on the agenda.

Because the weather was not all that good, with constant, sudden downpours, we chose not to imbibe any of the honey mead. Trying to drive in Chicago is already a frustrating task. Driving with slightly impaired reflexes from having drunk a graft of tej was not an option for us. Instead, we had traditional spiced tea — accented nicely with cinnamon and cloves. Mmmm. Not trying to see if we could fill our bellies endlessly, we went for entrée options rather than starting with appetizers and later regretting not having left enough room for finishing everything in front of us. Because I didn’t get a take-away menu or lift one of the menus we ordered from, I am relaying everything from memory.

The meal was primarily vegetarian. There were chopped greens that had a hint of garlic and ginger to them. Happiness. The cabbage with carrots and the melange of potatoes, string beans, and rutabaga didn’t last very long atop the ingera. Bliss. The creamed lentils and the flour chickpeas were so blooming delicious that they were so wrong at the same time. Rapture. And the chicken mixed with red peppers, onions, and jalapeño had us humming — when we weren’t silent. Petite mort. Being addicted to tomatoes, I won’t even get into how I attacked the complimentary salad. With fingers only and ingera, we reached, grabbed, and stuffed into our mouths so much flavour and bloom with assembly line precision. The fact that there were intermittent intervals of silence and humming was all the indication anyone needed to know that Den Den was several notches past outstanding.

Platter of Love

Platter of Love

Many people think of Ethiopian and Eritrean as the same. However, Eritrea is a country in Northeast Africa completely separate from Ethiopia. There are similarities in the people and in the cuisine. One may even find the beliefs and customs to be similar, considering they share a common border and there is a strong possibility for some cross-pollination to occur. What I had found certainly common among Den Den Restaurant and Ethiopian restaurants in Chicago like Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Diamond, Ras Dashen, and Demera is definitely authenticity, a huge presence of those from the country dining in the establishments, and a welcoming spirit that is standard throughout the whole of Africa.

The setting in Den Den Restaurant is very warm and ambient at night. For most who are not fans of ethnic dining, the service may seem a bit slow. That’s not the case. There is simply an acknowledgement that the enjoyment of flavours from the native land should never be rushed. For those who must have silverware, the traditional way of eating Eritrean food is with your fingers. The best experiences in Ethiopian and Eritrean dining are in a communal setting with friends. Talk about a great way for community gatherings. And when you receive the tab, be forewarned that your eyes will widen with disbelief as you note how reasonable the prices are. Some say tomato. Some say tomahto. Some think Ethiopian. Try Den Den Restaurant and let’s talk Eritrean a little more.

DenDen Restaurant and Bar on Urbanspoon