Over-indulging is easy at Queen of Sheba
Toward the end of a recent meal at the Ethiopian restaurant Queen of Sheba, a server noticed that although we had wrought havoc on an enormous amount of food, the bottom of our platter was still covered by sheets of the spongy injera bread that’s the foundation of Ethiopian cuisine — it serves as both a nourishing staple and as a utensil for scooping food from the communal plate. (Queen of Sheba will happily supply knives forks and spoons, but if a ham-handed klutz like me can get a grip on his food with injera, anybody can do it.)
Taking sympathy on us rubes, the server gestured toward those sheets of bread and kindly pointed out, "That’s the best part."
And of course, she was right. Everybody who’s ever written about injera has called it spongy, and for a reason: It soaks up everything it touches. And this is a good thing — at least when what it touches happens to be a juicy array of meats, vegetables and spices.
Now, by the time we learned this important truth about injera, my wife Mary and our friend Cathy had already found our way into a somewhat satiated state.
Had we known at the beginning of our meal what we knew at the end, we might have ordered just a single appetizer, rather than the Beyaynetu appetizer sampler ($7), which comes with generous portions of four intriguing items. We might, for instance, have ordered just the kosta wrap (by itself, it’s $4). Kosta means minced spinach (I wonder whether it’s a coincidence that the name sounds a bit Greek?), and in this treatment the spinach is sautéed with onions and garlic, then mixed with a soft, luxurious homemade cheese called Aybe, and then wrapped in injera. Personally, I think the kosta wrap alone is reason enough for you to drop whatever you’re doing and head immediately to Queen of Sheba.
Or we might have stuck with fossolia ($4), a stew of green beans, carrots and onions, also wrapped in injera — a dish that, except for the injera and a hint of exotic (but by no means hot) spice, might be perfectly at home on any Southern table.
Then again, we might have been happy with timatim fit-fit ($4). Fit-fit means shredded injera, and this is a cool, savory bread pudding made of tomatoes, grebe pepper, onion, lemon juice and berbere, the peppery mix of cumin and chiles that infuses much Ethiopian food with heat (the timatim fit-fit, sad to say, was the least successful of our appetizers; the hot spices had a harsh edge — not because they were too hot, never that — but because the spicy flavors hadn’t had time to meld into an inferno of harmony).
And we certainly could have begun with sambussa ($4), pastry shells stuffed with beef, chicken or lentils mixed with aromatics and spices and then pan-fried to a satisfying crunch.
But heck, we don’t eat Ethiopian food all that often, so we pulled out all the stops and had a bit of all those things.
And as I said, we didn’t know at the beginning that at the end we’d be sitting there lamenting that we just couldn’t manage more than a few bites of "the best part."
Even with all those appetizers, we could have planned better. We ordered the vegetarian combination for two ($18; the combo for one is $10) and an order of ye-beg tips ($10), meltingly tender chunks of lamb sautéed in onions, peppers and garlic. But any combination of two entrees would have been quite sufficient — portions are generous here.
The lamb was fine, but as I observed a few years ago, in a review of Queen of Sheba’s precursor, Abyssinia (which was located on Frankfort Avenue), in this cuisine the vegetarian dishes are marvels; the absence of meaty flavors illuminates the bold spices, crafty sauces (both hot and mellow) and deftly treated vegetables that are this restaurant’s most distinctive strength (which is not to say that lovers of beef, chicken and lamb won’t find plenty to celebrate as well).
Among the three items in the vegetarian combo, it would be tough to choose a favorite: misir wot ($8, when ordered as an entrée with side dishes) is an aromatic lentil stew; atakilt ($8) is a stew of cabbage, onions and carrots in a tomato sauce; and gomen wot ($8) consists of sheets of mild collard greens stewed with onions, potatoes and garlic.
This is cuisine that can achieve great heat. Our group was of mixed minds on this subject, but the problem was easily resolved: Our server brought us dishes of berbere and mit-mita (two powdered blends) and awaze (Ah-Wah-Zay), a brick-red paste made from berbere, and those of us who wanted more heat, treated ourselves to all the tongue-tingling we could handle, while folks with more delicate palates were as safe as could be. Whether hot or not, it’s festive food, rich in color — deep greens, bright orange carrots, clusters of fresh green salad at the compass points.
And it’s room that’s found a lovely home in an unlikely spot. I didn’t have high expectations for a dining room located in the Airport Inn, but recorded African music, tables dressed in woven cloths, some with patterns of folky embroidery, billowing white curtains arcing across the ceiling (and serving as veils of privacy for elevated booths along one wall), give the room a dash of exotic romance. Heck, even the hokey jellybean hues of the backlit bar are festive if you’re with the right people. And sharing food from a common plate is something you want to do with friends — or people you hope will become friends.
Queen of Sheba (www.queenofshebalouisville.com) is at 3315 Bardstown Road. A lunch buffet is served Sunday-Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner is served Tuesday-Thursday 5-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5-10:30 p.m.; Sunday 5-9 p.m. Major credit cards are accepted. The restaurant appears to be completely accessible for people using wheelchairs (except for a few raised booths). Call 459-6301 for more info.
By Marty Rosen