Tareke Beraki, the owner of Queen of Sheba, needed to know that all of us understood the purpose of injera, the flat, spongy bread that's the foundation of the traditional Ethiopian meal. He insisted. He wasn't leaving until he'd seen each of us tear off a piece of injera and use it to scoop up a mouthful of wat (stew) from our platter.
When I say injera is the foundation of Ethiopian cuisine, I mean it quite literally. Whatever dishes you order, they arrive in individual heaps atop one large piece of injera draped over a round, communal platter. The piece of injera doesn't fit the platter exactly. The excess is rolled up onto the platter, and from these rolls you make your "scoops."
Injera is more than just a utensil, however. Made from fermented teff, a highly nutritious grain, it has a mild, somewhat sour flavor that provides a bass note to the various savory and spicy Ethiopian dishes.
In some cities all this is common knowledge. There Ethiopian restaurants are a fixture of the ethnic-dining scene. St. Louis isn't such a city. As far as I know, there is Red Sea in the Delmar Loop and, now, Queen of Sheba. It's a shame, too. Besides being one of the world's oldest cuisines, Ethiopian is one of its most elegant not just in its interplay of flavors, but in its almost mathematical balance of form and function.
Elegant, that is, until we tried it.
As far as non-Western dining customs go, using injera as both a food and utensil seems straightforward. But if learning to use chopsticks is like learning to ride a bike tricky, but second nature with practice learning to eat with injera is like learning to kiss. The mechanics are obvious, but a certain amount of clumsiness is inevitable.
In other words, I spilled a whole lotta wat on my sweater.
On second thought, I blame the wat. I knew that the injera, while surprisingly elastic for something so thin, could hold only so much stew. Yet in spite of myself, I kept grabbing more than the injera could handle, trying to make miniature wat burritos, ending up with a dry-cleaning bill.
The flavor was tantalizing, one bite hot with chile, the next teasing with ginger or cardamom, the next warm with clove or allspice. I wanted to pin it down. As with Indian cuisine, though, you need a chemistry degree and a state-of-the-art lab to tease out all the individual spices in wat.
Actually, we had three wats on our plate: key wat, beef in a sauce seasoned with berbere, an Ethiopian spice mixture dominated by dried chile; yebeg wat, lamb in the same sauce; and doro wat, chicken in a milder sauce rich with butter and served with two hard-boiled eggs. I thought the yebeg wat the most intriguing, a deeply gamey cut of lamb that highlighted the fruity, peppery notes of the berbere sauce.
Soon, though, it was difficult to tell the three wats apart. Even before we swooped down with our handfuls of injera, they were spilling into one another, creating an überwat that could be brawny or creamy, hot or cool, savory or sour. All I can say for certain is that its color was a shade of crimson darker than blood. That's the color of my previously white sweater sleeve.
Queen of Sheba opened late last year in the space in University City's northeast corner occupied by Caribbean Sun until its closing last spring and, prior to that, by Addis, another (unrelated) Ethiopian restaurant.
If nothing else, credit Tareke Beraki with courage. As two restaurant failures in three years suggest, this isn't a prime location: a hike from the Delmar Loop and too far east to catch the attention of those searching Olive Boulevard's stretch of ethnic restaurants for something new to try. The area, though, is showing some signs of life: a relatively new strip mall a block south on Kingsland Avenue is home to Mi Ranchito (a very good Mexican restaurant) and a busy coin laundry.
Queen of Sheba's interior feels like a work-in-progress. The décor is ad hoc (a sign for Carribean Sun remains inside the front door), and during my visits, at least, the light was a dim, orange glow that didn't flatter the food. The single, L-shaped room resembles a neighborhood bar without TVs blaring sports, but with the cigarette smoke and loud music.
Connoisseurs of Ethiopian cuisine might find this food underseasoned. Nothing that the menu described as hot was especially so; key and yebeg wat were hottest, and these had a gentle heat, easily doused with a sip of beer. Vegetables wats such as a stew of lentils were blandly buttery, and a side dish of greens seemed nothing more than lightly dressed iceberg lettuce. Here kifto, the classic Ethiopian dish of raw ground beef with a spiced butter sauce, is served cooked. (You can get gored gored, a similar, slightly less imposing dish made with cubes of raw beef.)
In some respects, this is stripped-down Ethiopian cuisine. There is no mesob, the straw-covered tabletop on which Ethiopian meals are traditionally served, or the hand-washing ceremony that should precede the meal or the elaborate coffee ritual that follows it. But considering the dearth of Ethiopian restaurants in town, these are trivial concerns. Those with little or no experience with Ethiopian food will likely find Queen of Sheba a welcome introduction.
Assuming you don't object to sharing food from one plate (the kitchen will separate the dishes if you want or if you have carnivores and vegetarians eating together), the biggest obstacle to enjoying Ethiopian food is figuring out which dishes to share and you will share, even if you intend to eat only "your" dish. The temptation to graze over the whole platter is too great.
At any rate, Queen of Sheba simplifies matters by arranging its menu by style of entrée: beef, lamb, chicken, vegetable. The menu also includes five combinations of various dishes. I recommend pairing one of these combination dishes with one or two individual dishes. Or, rather, your server, seeing your indecision with the menu, will likely recommend this.
The key and doro wat are available in "Combination #1." We ordered this and the yebeg wat on my first visit. On another visit, we ordered "Combination #5," which features the rather tame cooked kifto. We also ordered the zilzil tibs, strips of seared beef, green pepper and onion brought to your table on a sizzling platter, much the way fajitas are. I'd been waiting for these since my first visit, when a waiter whisked past with an order. The aroma from the smoking platter was an irresistible combination of browning meat and that alchemical berbere spice mixture. I wished the meat had been closer to medium rare than medium well, but this was a delicious dish.
By this point, I felt fairly confident with the injera, though I still cheated now and then by using my left hand to hold the larger piece steady while I tore with my right. You're not supposed to use your left hand at all. I knew this, but I was trying to master one step at a time.
This visit, at least, I'd remembered not to wear white.