The food of Ethiopia is popular for its intriguing spices, spongy bread and lack of utensils. Our neighbor to the south, Washington, D.C., is justly celebrated for having one of the country's best Ethiopian food scenes. Here in Baltimore, our options are more limited, and mostly concentrated in the Mount Vernon area.
Sheba Restaurant, which opened last year in Canton, is a welcome addition to Baltimore's list, bringing good Ethiopian food and friendly, though not always attentive, service to a new part of the city.
Scene & Decor Upon first glance, the inside of Sheba looked familiar. With its long, polished wood bar, exposed brick wall and tiny bathrooms, it seemed similar to many other corner bars in Canton.
But the back of the space told a different story. Warm colors, African-inspired art and a handful of mesobs (vibrantly patterned, round tables covered with lids) gave us an Ethiopian welcome.
Even on a Tuesday evening, the back tables were mostly full with couples and small groups of friends and the vibe was relaxed and fun.
Drinks We started with a St. George beer ($5), an easy-to-drink lager brewed in Ethiopia, and a glass of tej ($7), a sweet drink made with honey and hops.
The tej was billed as wine but it was really more like mead. Thanks to the hops, it tasted like a mild and very sweet beer. Served in a "berele," a traditional glass that looked ideal for brewing witchy potions, it was enjoyable and a good match for the spiciest dishes.
Appetizers A pair of vegetarian sambusas ($3.50) — lentil-filled pastries similar to samosas — was spicy, crispy and steaming hot.
Outside, the pastry was crisp and inside, nicely cooked lentils had surprising spicy heat. A drizzle of hot sauce across the top of the sambusas added even more spice, though not so hot that our eyes watered.
Entrees Sheba offers a couple "sampler" entrees — even with a small group, they're a great way to experiment with different parts of the menu. The Sheba Sampler ($28.99) is designed for up to three people (and is definitely enough food for three).
The large round platter covered several bases, with five vegetarian options, a choice of beef or lamb tibs (we went with the lamb) and a choice of doro wot or kay wot (we chose kay wot).
Two large, folded slices of injera — spongy, slightly sour bread — were served, folded into quarters, on a side plate. Instead of utensils, Ethiopian food is scooped up with torn pieces of injera. (The meal also came with extra napkins.)
The lamb, well seasoned and sauteed with sliced onion, tomatoes and chunks of jalapeno peppers, was flavorful and cooked nicely, but was probably the least exciting item on the platter.
The kay wot, thick beef stew cooked with the typical Ethiopian spice mixture berbere (which includes chili peppers, garlic, ginger and a handful of other spices), came with two hard-boiled eggs. We especially liked it paired with chunks of mild white cheese, which were crumbled in a pile on the side of the platter.
Both meats were satisfying but we were more impressed by the selection of vegetarian dishes. Red lentils were slightly tangy, green lentils were earthy and savory and a thick yellow split pea stew was mild with flavor that stopped just short of sweet.
Our favorite vegetarian dishes were hearty collard greens, cooked until tender and deeply seasoned, and shiro wot, a surprisingly spicy and flavorful ground bean paste.
Dessert Sheba's dessert menu takes a sharp detour from Africa, and there is only one thing available: baklava ($4.95). Fortunately, the baklava is as good as a Greek spot's. The triangle of phyllo and nuts was firm, sweet and honey-drenched. And, thankfully, served with a fork.
Service The food at Sheba made the experience a good one, but a little extra attention from our waitress would have pushed it into great territory. She was very nice but also obviously busy, handling all of the customers in the restaurant and disappearing into the back for several long chunks of time.
We also would have appreciated a quick explanation of the different dishes on our platter, maybe even a short tutorial on Ethiopian food and how to eat it.
Like everyone at the tables around us, we managed and we had fun doing it. Ethiopian food isn't yet commonplace enough in Baltimore to leave diners to their own devices, but with options like Sheba, it might be soon.
Back story: Opened last year, Sheba Restaurant brings owner Nurlign Nurlign's native Ethiopian cuisine to Canton — an exciting and unusual addition to the neighborhood's dining options.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: The Sheba sampler, with its selection of vegetarian options, tibs and doro wot or kay wot, provides a glimpse of much of the menu. Served on a large round tray with plenty of bread, it is designed for up to three people to share.
Where: 3301 Foster Avenue, Baltimore
Contact: 443-682-7616; shebabaltimore.com
Open: 12 p.m. to 11 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday; 12 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday (Kitchen closes at 10 p.m.)
Credit Cards: All major
Bottom line: Good Ethiopian food in an unexpected place — the heart of CantonCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun