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Queen of the East

Beef sambusa appetizer with the Sheba Sampler Platter including beef tips with peppers & onions, homemade cheese, Doro Wat, and several vegetable offerings.
Beef sambusa appetizer with the Sheba Sampler Platter including beef tips with peppers & onions, homemade cheese, Doro Wat, and several vegetable offerings. (Jefferson Jackson Steele)

As recently as two years ago, satisfying your craving for authentic Ethiopian food required a trip to Washington, D.C., but now that Charm City has a handful of spots specializing in the distinctive flavors of East Africa, you can save some gas money and get stuffed in the process. The stalwart Dukem, whose quality has slipped of late, has been eclipsed by such newcomers as Tabor, Ebenezer, and Kana Market & Carry Out, but Sheba Restaurant and Nightclub (3301 Foster Ave., 443-682-7616), which opened last year, stands out from the rest.

Located on a residential block in Canton, Sheba at first seems somewhat out of place for the neighborhood, its colorful, graffiti-painted exterior in stark contrast to the homogenous row homes around it. But its interior is calmer than its bright exterior would suggest. Entering through a dark, nondescript bar, you walk back to a cozy dining room that seats no more than 15. The cultural trinkets and photos of Ethiopia adorning the walls conjure a homey feel, as if you're in someone's living room. Half the tables, in fact, are traditional woven tables called mesobs, which resemble hand drums.

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Sheba has a small menu to match the small space, specializing in all the Ethiopian standards. Meat dishes mostly resemble curries, luxuriating in a rich sauce that is usually flavored with berbere, an Ethiopian spice mixture heavy on the red chili. Vegetarian dishes are simple and clean, but taste so good you'll forget you're eating healthy. The pancakelike bread known as injera, which owes its tart taste to fermentation like sourdough, complements the food nicely. It serves as the workhorse of the meal—other dishes are served on the injera and the diner tears off the pieces of the bread to sample the dishes, making the injera food, plate, and utensil.

For those unfamiliar with Ethiopian food, Sheba's samplers serve as an excellent introduction to the cuisine. The vegetarian sampler ($13.99), featuring yemeser kik (red lentil stew), kik alicha (yellow split pea stew), gomen wot (collard greens), defen meser (green lentils), and shiro wot (spicy ground beans), looks incredibly enticing with its rainbow of colors—red, yellow, green and brown—presented atop a bed of the spongy injera bread. It tastes even better, and begs the question as to how simple pulses and greens can be so flavorful and substantial, enough to satisfy even the most fervent carnivore. If you're lucky, you'll get a batch of injera made with the traditional, gluten-free, and relatively expensive teff flour, which tastes far superior to wheat and is only available while supplies last.

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Other sampler options are the Sheba Sampler ($28.99), which features the vegetarian sampler plus two meat dishes and feeds three, or the Ultimate Sheba Sampler ($52.95), featuring the vegetarian sampler and four meat dishes, which is designed to feed five. Since I barely finished the vegetarian sampler on my first visit, I decided to go a la carte the next time around. I started off with the meat and vegetable sambusas ($3.50 each), which were identical to Indian samosas except for the spices, and served piping hot and crispy on the outside. Both the ground-beef filling and the spiced lentil filling of the vegetable sambusas stood up well on their own without a dipping sauce, and were, thankfully, not greasy.

I also ordered the lamb tibs awaze, a stewlike preparation of tender chunks of lamb (or beef) cooked with onions, garlic, tomato, and bell pepper, and bearing an unmistakable hint of rosemary and thyme. Sheba's awaze, a ketchup-like condiment made with berebere, lemon, ginger, and garlic, takes this dish to a whole other level. Spicy and savory, it tasted like a cross between a curry and stir-fry, and the bread proved a perfect vehicle for mopping up all that delicious gravy.

Another signature dish known for its full-bodied sauce is doro wot ($14.25), considered to be Ethiopia's national dish. Chicken is the main protein in Sheba's version, slow-cooked with onions, garlic, niter kibbeh (Ethiopian-spiced, clarified butter), and, of course, berbere, which provides both heat and a bold flavor. The star of the show was definitely the thick, rich sauce—smoky, if not slightly sweet—but unfortunately Sheba only serves it with one drumstick and a hard-boiled egg, making the lamb tibs a much better bite for the value. Kitfo, another Ethiopian specialty consisting of finely chopped raw meat—similar to steak tartare—also appears on the menu, and the kitchen will serve it slightly cooked if you prefer.

Sheba also has an all-day Ethiopian breakfast menu featuring enkulal fir fir (scrambled eggs with tomato, onions, jalapeno, and injera or bread), fir fir (Ethiopian beef stew mixed with injera), and foul (ground fava beans with onion, tomato, jalapeno, and sour cream). It stocks three kinds of Ethiopian beer, including the popular St. George, Harar, and Meta, as well as Ethiopian red wine (gouder) and a fermented honey wine known as Tej, which is definitely an acquired taste.

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Though Ethiopians are not big on dessert, Sheba offers a generous slice of not-too-sweet baklava—made in house—which would pair well with a cup of Ethiopian coffee, if they had it. You’ll need it to cut the richness of the meal. Otherwise, you’re headed for a nap—albeit a very contented one. ν

Sheba Restaurant and nightclub is open Tuesday-Thursday Noon-11 p.m., Friday-Saturday Noon-2 a.m., and Sunday Noon-11 p.m.

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