Your first sight upon entering the restaurant is an up-to-the-minute National Geographic map of the world. There on the upper eastern flank of Africa are Ethiopia and Eritrea. No doubt owner Hidat Asfaha Tedla wants to remind us of the geographic origin of the victuals she serves, but it also may remind her of how far away her four children are, and the small part she plays in quelling hunger around the world.
East African food is served sans silverware on a large platter-sized bed of Enjera, a spongy bread that evokes the flavor of a communion wafer
Hidat is a tall, gentle woman from Ethiopia. When asked why she named her brand-new restaurant “Oak of Mamre,” she explains the history of a certain oak tree in the Holy Land, where Abraham met God in the person of three angels and offered them unconditional hospitality. Hidat tells of those who have offered her hospitality, including two neighboring churches, Catholic Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral and the Christian Orthodox Joy of All Who Sorrow, and a yoga teacher named Lee Edgren. Mother Katharine, known for her instruction in icon painting, happens to be dining at a nearby table. She gets up to turn down the volume on the TV, which, in seeming deference to secular America, is blaring an episode of the sitcom Full House (what the Olsen twins would have added to our experience of African food, I’ll never know). Adjacent to us is a man who looks like he is finally home. He’s an Ethiopian who has lived in America for 17 years. On this cold night, his native language and Kilwa Derho (chicken roasted with vegetables) are obvious comforts. If you’d gone to the now-closed Queen of Sheba, you’ll recall that East African food is served sans silverware on a large platter-sized bed of Enjera, a spongy bread that evokes the flavor of a communion wafer, with a sourdough, faintly beer-like scent. Enjera efficiently functions as a plate, a food scooper-upper and a carbohydrate. With our ripped-off swatches of Enjera we dip into the modest piles on our shared platter. I opted for the vegetarian combo, Hwswas Tsebhi Tsome, and my companion, the roast beef dish, Kewa Sga. Each comes with salty cooked spinach (Tsebhi Adri), the African version of sauerkraut (Alicha Hamlee) and a small iceberg salad with an Italian dressing. The portions are modest, to match the prices — the most expensive item on the menu is $6.99. My companion’s main course was a mildly spiced beef, “a good cut of meat,” he announced, in a friendly pepper sauce. My vegetarian dish featured two kinds of lentils, Tomtomo Alicha Tsebhi and Tomtomo Keih Tsebhi. One was advertised as hotter than the other, but neither really raised my temperature. I suspect that Hidat is underestimating the American capacity for hotness; I, for one, am ready to rumble. The menu rounds out with two other East African chicken dishes, lamb and more beef, not to mention an array of Midwestern fare including “pasta spaghetti, steak, fried chicken, grilled cheese, tuna salad and more.” On the whole our meal was pleasant, but not quite as challenging as I had hoped. Luckily, Hidat told us she is eager for feedback, and more than likely would go out of her way to satisfy a customer’s request to unleash the full power of the Ethiopian spice rack. Besides meeting Hidat, one of those people you instantly feel you would do anything for, my favorite part of dinner at Oak of Marme was the hot milk. It beckons humbly at the end of the menu, a mere 79 cents for a steamed, frothy lullaby of a drink on a windy winter night. Hidat serves it with honey, and for a half second, world peace is not only possible, it’s likely.
Oak of Marme 28 E. 14th St. 340-6269 Lunch 10:30-2 Tuesday-Saturday Dinner 4-9 Tuesday-Saturday Sunday noon-9 Closed Monday Food : 3 stars Atmosphere : 3 stars Service : 4 stars