12:23: We arrived to a more than half-filled dining room and were seated immediately. The Dukem dining room makes practical use of its irregular shape with an effect that's conducive to private conversation, though appearances might suggest otherwise. Dukem's vibe is distinctly grown-up casual and that may be what overcame my initial impression that diners would feel they are seated too close to each other or that they are too exposed.
12:27: We selected sambusas for starters, an easy choice at $2.50 for the veggie and $3.25 for the meat-filled pastry. For the main course we wisely chose a combination platter for two that relieved us of any difficult compromises and guaranteed neither of us would be out-ordered.
12:37: The sambusas land, crispy triangles of flaky filo stuffed with a combination of minced vegetables. The filling was arid, savory and introduced a theme of the meal — a nice gradual jalapeno heat build that's all about seasoning rather than mugging the palate with hellfire. I was a bit surprised that the sambusas didn't come with a sauce of some kind, which is not to say I was disappointed. The snack stood well on its own. But I was curious what a chutney or, better yet an awaze — a peppery dipping sauce — might have added.
12:45: The platter of seven items came arranged in hillocks on a round of injera. The color and texture of the arrangement grabbed our attention first. Light sienna lentil puree, reddish brown beef wot, translucent yellow cabbage, dark green collards, bright red tomatoes, speckled tan ground lamb and black lamb tibs presented an earthy, autumnal spectrum. One color caught me off guard: the gray of the injera, the pancake-y, crepe-like bread that I expected to be closer to the gold of a pancake. Ethiopia has more than one variety of injera, and more than one color. Injera was teaching me. In any case, its lightly fermented sourdough-like notes lend it enough character to be a force throughout the meal without overpowering or getting lost among the other contenders for your taste buds. And it's a perfect foil for the pepper.
I love lamb and we had two addictive renditions of it on our plate, but my favorite here was the beef wot, a stew infused with berbere, an Ethiopian spice combination with a heat as deep and attractive as the red it lends to its dishes. The meat was nearly as tender as the bread, with the rich broth exploding over the palate. An infinitesimally close second favorite was the light-mustard-hued, more subtly peppered cabbage. I'd add gomen, the collard greens, as another standout. The Ethiopian kitchen treats vegetarians kindly and gives committed meat eaters something to think about. The green side of the Dukem menu is at least as attractive and substantial as the red.
Most of Dukem's single-item entrees run around $11 to $13. The combo platters go from $12 to $30, and remember, you're getting a lot of food as you go up the price scale. Considering the range of flavors, the mature, comfortable surroundings, attentive service and the pleasure of an anything but run of the mill menu, it's hard to argue against Dukem offering a bargain, even if it's one enjoyed more for special occasions than a weekly staple.
1:16: We paid and left, vowing to return some evening when it would be appropriate to sample an Ethiopian beer or two. Dukem offers an exotic escape and, with injera, a hands-on cultural experience that I still insist is trickier than it looks. What can I say? I was dying for a fork. I wanted to scoop the meats and vegetables into an injera wrap, just to see what flavor combinations I could create. An adept diner could accomplish the same effect with a well- schooled thumb and forefinger.
Where: 1100 Maryland Ave.
Lunch hours: 11:30am – 5pm Tuesday through Saturday
Lunch entrees: $11 - $13 with combo platters up to $30
[Key: ✭✭✭✭ Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]