Confession. For the longest time, Ethiopian cuisine held little appeal to me. I will try almost anything at least once, but I could never gather enough motivation to try Ethiopian. I knew the majority of it is eaten with your hands, including a bevy of runny stews made with spices that I never heard of. Sounds messy. I heard that the bread (injera) that is served with everything is cold, sour and flimsy. And so now after many experiences later, I realize that my unwillingness to try Ethiopian is what made me initially hesitant all along.
Desta Ethiopian Kitchen is a good ambassador for Ethiopian dining. The space is cozy and casts a warm glow in the evenings against the dining room’s dark tones. The dishes are plated on sleek modern dishware, and the attached covered patio — inclusive with a tree growing through the middle of it — is inviting when warmer days approach. The menu is vast and even boasts a variety of fusion dishes (Ethiopian sandwiches or Desta burger anyone?), which I did not get to sample. But take the plunge with the restaurant’s traditional fare, none of it disappoints.
Most everything at Desta is served on, or with injera — a spongy porous flat bread made with flour milled from teff grain. Teff is a gluten-free wonder food high in protein, fiber and iron; and it is brought to fermentation during the injera-making process imparting a sour taste to the bread. At Desta, two kinds of injera are given to diners depending on what they order. Owner Ash Nega revealed that the darker injera is made from 100 percent teff, whereas the lighter colored version is blended with wheat to accommodate tastes. At Desta and all other Ethiopian restaurants around town, most of the food is eaten by hand. The trick is to tear off pieces of injera and scoop up food into the bubbly side of the bread.
The kitchen’s ribeye or lamb tibs ($12) is a good introduction. Small cubes of tender lamb or beef are seasoned with a reddish berbere — a smoky spice blend of chilies, garlic, ginger and cardamom (to name a few) — then sautéed with onions, tomatoes and bell peppers.
If meat is not your thing, the fish dulet ($11) made with tilapia is a dish that had me from the first bite. The fish is minced with onions and bell peppers and packs heat and a little citrusy tang from mitmita — a spice blend of ground African birdseye chili and cardamom. The dish is also served on a long rectangular strip of injera and came with misir wot, a thick red lentil stew flavored with garlic and berbere.
The misir wot is one of many offerings in Desta’s eclectic vegetarian combo ($9). A scoop of it is placed on a layer of injera alongside a serving of yellow split peas flavored with onion and garlic, and a rich tomato fir fir stew liberally seasoned with berbere. Other vegetable variations are placed on the rest of the plate without injera. There is a fluffy dollop of shiro (ground chickpeas) that is drier than the Mediterranean hummus it resembles. And my palate welcomes the cool green lentil salad that counterbalances the spicier dishes.
Desta’s full bar offers a variety of liquors, spirits and a selection of American, European and Ethiopian Te’j (honey-based) wines. Additionally, a small selection of European and Ethiopian beers are available. I sampled two Ethiopian brands called Meta and St. George; they both are similar to lagers in style, but the former has a sweet honey taste while the latter has a light bitter finish.
Before hanging up the phone with Mr. Nega, he interjected that the word desta means happiness. He clearly has nothing but the best intentions for your experience at his restaurant. I think Desta holds true to that so far.DESTA ETHIOPIAN KITCHEN 3086 Briarcliff Road N.E., Atlanta, 404-929-0011 Food: Exotic Ethiopian cuisine with a wide selection of fusion dishes Service: Good Best Dishes: Ribeye tibs, fish dulet, vegetarian combo Vegetarian Selections: A large variety of vegetarian options such as two types of injera (bread), vegetarian combo dish offering many cooked vegetables, a vegetable pasta and various salads Price Range: $-$$ Credit Cards: American Express, Visa, MasterCard, Discover Hours: 9 a.m.-midnight Mondays-Thursdays, 9 a.m.-1 a.m. Fridays-Sundays, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Children: Yes Parking: In Lot Reservations: Yes Wheelchair Access: Yes Smoking: No Noise Level: Moderate to high Patio: Yes Takeout: Yes