It’s one thing to spare a forkful of your entrée for a friend. Sharing the entire table is generosity itself.
Ethiopian restaurants offer one of the most intimate ways of dining outside the home. Sitting around trays of injera decorated with an intricate assembly of blobs and dabs — the chocolate bordering the gold, the terra-cotta touching the dark green — it’s hard not to feel a sense of kinship with the folks across from you. You tear off your first piece of the soft bread, and the dance begins, everyone reaching and dipping and smearing and dodging.
Finfiné, a three-year-old Ethiopian restaurant on edge of the student strip of Telegraph, straddles the border between formal and informal, African and Californian. The place looks a little anonymous — other than a few Ethiopian wall hangings, you could be dining on Tuscan, French, Goan, or North Kentuckian. Except there aren’t any plates or forks on the table.
Instead, you get injera — which serves as your plate, utensils, and a perfect foil for the spicy stews mounded on top. Injera is a magical substance, sensually spongy and a little sour, like a giant crumpet riddled with almost microscopic holes; I always have to resist the temptation to take home a few crepes to use as throw pillows or facial wipes. One of the staples of the Ethiopian diet, injera can be made with wheat, sorghum, rice, barley, or millet. But most often it’s made with teff, Ethiopia’s indigenous grain.
If you stuff yourself silly on the rolls of injera that Finfiné provides in a basket, you miss the best part — tearing away the sauce-saturated crepe on the bottom of the platter after everything else has been devoured.
Many of the vegetable and meat stews at Finfiné are flavored with spiced butter, and some with a rich spice mix called berbere. Here are a few of the spices that go into it: dried chiles, garlic, ginger, onions, rue, sacred basil, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, false cardamom, and bishop weed. Spiced butter is clarified with an equally long list of ingredients. As in the best Indian masalas, the individual flavors of Ethiopian spice blends are impossible to tease out. It’s easier to trace how they travel through the mouth — flushing out the cheeks before fading into a tingle, say, or streaking down the tongue and up through the sinuses.
At some Ethiopian restaurants, the chefs incorporate these ingredients into long-braised stews that roil with spices. At Finfiné, the cooks take a fresher approach, swaddling the natural flavors of their ingredients with transparent layers of spice. Nothing is obscured. The green lentils taste distinct from the yellow split peas, the chicken from the beef, and not just because the spice mix is different. Sometimes the effect comes off beautifully; sometimes I was left craving more intensity.
I started my first meal at Finfiné with kitfo, spiced raw beef. It’s quite lovely. The spiced butter Finefiné stirs into the creamy, finely chopped meat gives it a deep throb — one that you feel more than you taste, like the fattest bass from your subwoofer. Punch up the mix with a sprinkle of potent mit’mit’a (dried chile), and then pick up pinches of meat along with curds of a smoky, dry cottage cheese and peppery collard greens. “Eat the kitfo with small pieces of injera, not big ones,” explained our waiter, a friendly chap who was happy to explain the finer points of dining Ethiopian food with us. “You can taste it better.” Cooking the kitfo flattens out the delicate balance of spices, but if you’re daunted by the rawness the cooks will sear it for you.
The other meats I ordered were all quickly sautéed rather than braised for days. (Note: I only went to Finfiné on weekdays; the weekend menu contains a number of heartier stews.) For the ye-doro tibs, cubes of chicken breast were coated in a ruddy, aromatic paste and quickly sautéed in spiced butter just until the meat cooked through. Ye-assa lebleb received a similar treatment, and the pale, moist Chilean seabass stood up to the thick, rust-colored coating better than it does to Berkeley’s political sensibilities. (The owners could easily find another mild-colored fish that isn’t rushing toward extinction.) But ye-awazé beg tibs, a quick stir-fry of lamb with caramelized onions, garlic, ginger, and a mild spice blend, could have been made with slightly less lean cut of meat — it toughened quickly, and there wasn’t much to the flavor beyond the meat.
Ethiopian food was one of those cuisines I discovered during my freshman year in college, when I realized that you could be a vegetarian and still have a seriously good time. It didn’t last, of course — I finally realized that I couldn’t live the rest of my life without pepperoni, bacon, and smoked ham hocks; and while you could claim vegetarianism and still eat fish, no one would ever let you be the vegetarian who ate only cured pork. Nevertheless, there’s so much pleasure in the vast expanses of meat-free Ethiopian — credit the Coptic Christians who go veggie about two hundred days out of the year.
Unlike most of the East Bay’s Ethiopian restaurants, Finfiné restricts its vegetable offerings to one choice, a vegetarian combination that complements the meaty stews (vegetarians can double or triple their order). Going around the platter clockwise, there’s a simple lettuce salad in a biting vinaigrette; ye ater kik alitcha, a thick yellow split-pea stew that blooms in the nose with ginger; and mild, turmeric-yellow potatoes cadging a bit of sweetness from the carrots stewed along with them.
Some of the legumes are served hot — like ye missir wot, a brick-red lentil stew that pulses with berbere — and some cold: ye-missir azeefa, a tart, almost crunchy cold lentil salad, and a paste made with dried chickpea flour, lemon, and mustard. The latter looks like hummus but tastes like the stuff you pipe into deviled eggs.
Even though Finfiné’s fare is milder than many, it’s still more easily washed down with glasses of Harar beer, a nutty little lager; or tej, Ethiopian mead, which tastes like liquid sugar but cuts the heat perfectly.
Make-up dinner? Second date? Share a meal at Finfiné. You may knock knuckles chasing after the last bite of collard greens or squabble over the last roll of injera, but it’s impossible to keep a chilly distance when you’re eating off the same plate.