"What's that under the food?" my companion inquires when a platter is dropped off at the table.
That is injera, the crepelike sourdough flatbread that's considered the national dish of Ethiopia and plays a strong supporting role in its cuisine. Part of its appeal is its ability to soak up the juices and flavors of food piled on top of it, but injera also subs for flatware. Small pieces torn from the larger whole — traditionally using only the right hand — are used to pinch up bites of stews, meats and salads. Simply put, injera is integral to Ethiopian cuisine.
Back in December, Monroe Ward welcomed KuRu Ethiopian Bistro to a Grace Street location that in the past has turned over with alarming regularity. Virginia Commonwealth University's students wasted no time discovering the spot, but they're gone for the time being. While I'm no fortune teller, I think it's safe to say that the addition of an Ethiopian restaurant a block from the arts district and a mere walk across Broad Street from Jackson Ward's bustling restaurant scene almost guarantees KuRu becomes a mainstay.
The small space — three tables against a banquette and another three of the basket tables known as mesobs, complete with chairs and stool — feels cozy with walls of burnished gold and copper. Fans lazily turn overhead and Ethiopian music plays in the background. In the front window sits a full coffee service. KuRu roasts and grinds its own Ethiopian beans daily, for those who want the full experience, right down to burning incense. Only the large screen in the back distracts from the mellow vibe.
A summer meal couldn't begin on a more fitting note than timatim fitfit ($5.95), an appealing mélange of miniscule bits of injera, diced tomatoes and onions enlivened with garlic, slices of jalapeño, olive oil and lemon, served cold. No need to be a vegetarian to enjoy piping hot misir sambussas ($5.00), pastry shells bursting with brown lentils, onions, scallions, peppers and herbs, the fried, crispy outside shattering with each bite.
Among the most filling starters is ayib bemitmita ($6.50), a generously-sized bowl of the Ethiopian farmer's cheese ayib, something of a cottage cheese-ricotta hybrid mixed with chili powder, and served with sufficient injera to derail the rest of your meal if you're not careful.
Lamb rules at KuRu, whether in a wrap as a lunch special ($9.99) or as lamb tibs ($18.95) made up of cubed leg of marinated lamb sauteed with onions, garlic, jalapeño and bits of fresh tomatoes and spiced with awaze, the fiery red chili pepper sauce taking its heat from the spice blend berbere, which includes the subtlest notes of allspice. If this combination can't seduce your taste buds, my condolences.
If you're new to Ethiopian cuisine, a safe place to start is with the national stew known as doro wot, which is available in both mild and spicy varieties. Tradition dictates that onions must be long cooked with butter, lots of butter, and berbere to form a base for chicken legs and a hard-cooked egg to create the best doro aletcha wot ($13.95). Mild but complex, it's a winner.
For the adventurous or the uncertain, the combination trays ($15.75 – 24.95) offer the means to concoct a sampler of chicken, lamb and vegetarian dishes to suit a full table with varying palates. Our combination tray 1 ($21.95) offered an array of good eating, featuring the fiery ye'beg ke'y wot (spicy beef stew) and the tamer but equally flavorful doro aletcha wot, along with tangy fresh collards, crisply cooked cabbage and hearty potatoes with split lentils.
Over the course of three visits, only awaze tibs ($12.95) underwhelmed, mainly because the sauteed extra lean beef was a bit too chewy for our taste. That said, I'd be willing to go back and give it another try because the heat of those onions bathed in awaze sauce was so seductive.
Truth be told, I'll find my way back to KuRu for a host of reasons: smiling service, a practiced Ethiopian cook turning out authentic food and ambiance that invites lingering over a meal. This Jackson Ward resident intends to take full advantage before the students return, and then put up with them once they're back.
KuRu Ethiopian Bistro, you're a welcome addition to the neighborhood. S
KuRu Ethiopian Bistro
415 W. Grace St.
Lunch Wednesdays- Saturdays 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m., Dinner Tuesdays- Thursdays 5:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m., Fridays – Saturdays 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.