We've all heard the saying that children learn to share in kindergarten by sharing toys, books -- even the teachers' attention. This is a very American notion, because it is predicated on the idea of plenty. When there is plenty for everyone, sharing is a social grace and a sign of maturity. In communities and countries where scarcity is more common, sharing is a social necessity and must be learned from birth.
Every time I sit down to a truly shared meal, I consider again this etiquette of sharing -- the delicate questions of what you prefer to eat, how much food to order and what kinds. Should we order a side dish? An appetizer? What if we want to order a lot more? Or a lot less? The conscientious diner may worry about taking too much of any one dish, leaving too little for his or her partner.
- Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner, 5-11 p.m.
- Basics: Share communal platters of authentic food in an attractive dining room decorated with images and art from Ethiopia. Reasonably knowledgeable servers are happy to make suggestions and describe dishes.
- Recommended dishes: Lentil sambusa, Ayib Bemitmita (Ethiopian cottage cheese), Tana Tibs, Yesega Kay Wot (hot cubed beef), Misir Kay Wot (lentils in hot pepper sauce), Tikil Gomen (cabbage), Kinche (cracked wheat dish).
- Prices: Appetizers, $2.50-$4; entrees, $9-$13; platters, $9-$14 per person; desserts, $2.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible; nonsmoking; parking on street; credit cards accepted; reservations accepted; Tana does not allow BYOB.
- Noise level: Quiet.
Sharing food can be intimidating, even a little tiring, but it can also be fun and rewarding. There is a reason that breaking bread together is practically a universal sign of friendship and community.
At Tana Ethiopian Cuisine -- the second Ethiopian restaurant to come to East Liberty, joining Abay -- diners can order individual entrees but are encouraged to eat in the traditional manner, sharing from a large metal platter. Injera -- a flatbread made from tef, a tiny, nutritious cereal grain -- serves as the eating utensil and as a sort of plate itself.
Food is taken directly from the communal platter, so there is no need for individual plates, and the act of sharing is a physical one. It is common for two or more hands to reach out at once. One person may defer to another, but often people must deftly negotiate the platter, careful to match their motions and appetites to their companions'.
If sharing makes you nervous, warm up with an appetizer. The Sambusa (two for $2.50) are small triangle pastries filled with a mixture of either ground beef or lentils. Because the dough is very thin, the wrappers can feel a bit greasy. I especially enjoyed the lentil version, brightened up by chunks of green bell pepper. They were similar to Indian samosas, reflecting the countries' geographical proximity. (India and Ethiopia have been trading partners for hundreds of years.)
The short list of appetizers includes Ayib Bemitmita ($3), which is translated as cottage cheese and reminds me of a looser, almost scrambled version of Indian paneer. The mild white cheese is cooked with hot pepper powder, and works well as an accompaniment to the main courses.
Wot, thick stews, are the primary basis of Ethiopian cuisine. They are served on top of Injera, which soaks up the juices, preserving every drop of flavor and sustenance. Tana makes the Injera in-house, and so the taste and texture can vary a bit. On one visit it was exceptional -- thin yet still fluffy, with a distinctive sour note; but another batch was plainer, and a bit too sticky.
Most dishes are extremely easy to scoop up in a bit of bread. Beef was served either chopped into very small cubes, Yesega Wot ($11), or ground, Minchet Abish Wot ($10). I preferred the chopped beef, especially the Yesega Kay Wot, which had a denser, richer sauce. Though this dish was labeled as "hot," few dishes were particularly spicy. Minchet Abish Alicha Wot, ground beef cooked in turmeric sauce, is surprisingly pale and mild in flavor.
Tana Tibs ($13) were the highlight of one meal. The chopped lamb was moist, just a bit gamey and rich with butter. The earthiness of rosemary and onions was the perfect companion to the spicy kick of chopped green chili peppers.
Doro Wot ($11), a ubiquitous dish of braised chicken legs, was topped with a hard-boiled egg, creating an interesting contrast of texture and taste. Because the chicken is served on the bone, this dish is the most challenging to eat without a knife and fork. It would be a nice touch for servers to bring around hot towels at the end of the meal.
There are many vegetarian options, which is typical of Ethiopian restaurants. Unfortunately, the vegetable dishes at Tana are a little less consistent than the meat dishes.
On one visit, I was impressed by perfectly cooked Ye Abesha Gomen ($9), collard greens braised with onions, herbs and green bell pepper. They tasted especially good when sprinkled with a bit of the Ethiopian cheese. But on another visit, the greens were overcooked, yet still hadn't lost their bitterness.
The two lentil dishes (Misir Wot, $9) were consistently good, though the difference between the turmeric sauce and hot pepper sauce is subtle enough that ordering both seems redundant.
Platters also come with rotating vegetable salad. A beet salad offered a pleasant touch of color, but the soft texture and slightly dull flavor of the beets suggested that they had come from a can. A cauliflower and chickpea salad was fantastic.
The food is good, but the menu is small, and many dishes share similar if not identical sauces, so it's a little easy to get bored. While it is true that Ethiopian food is based on a set of staple ingredients, the list is not quite as small as Tana's menu implies. There is also nothing wrong with incorporating more unusual ingredients into traditional Ethiopian cuisine, which would help broaden the menu and encourage frequent visits.
The homey food is a sharp contrast to ambitious decor. The large, U-shaped dining room is painted in pale, soothing desert colors. Tables are covered in woven wool rugs, protected by glass tops. Pictures of Ethiopia, wooden carvings and weavings decorate the wall. The front window displays a group of mesob, traditional basket-weave tables, surrounded by small wooden stools.
Service is pleasant and unobjectionable, if a bit slow, considering how many of the dishes can be prepared in advance. I was pleased by the servers' knowledge of Ethiopian food, though one did accidentally suggest an appetizer that wasn't actually being served -- Sambusas made with ground chicken.
A few details need work. The wine and beer list is depressingly minimal, despite a no-BYOB policy. Hot, spiced tea was never very hot or very spiced. There is no traditional Ethiopian dessert, but that is still no excuse for the poor quality of those offered, including a lackluster cheesecake and Boston cream pie.
Seifu Haileyesus, the owner, has made arrangements with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to start serving Tej, traditional honey wine, and it should be on the menu in the next few weeks. He also hopes to be able to offer imported Ethiopian beers.
On Saturday afternoons, you can observe a traditional coffee ceremony, in which Ethiopian coffee beans are roasted, ground and brewed, then passed around in small cups. Larger groups can also request traditional coffee service when making reservations.
With solid food, attractive decor and pleasant service, Tana is a promising addition to the East Liberty restaurant corridor.
Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1198.