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Try eating with your fingers at Tajitu

Restaurant review

Restaurant review

May 25, 2008|By GASTRONOMIST BOSCH

FREDERICK, Md. - Certain culinary traditions are famed for their vegetarian fare - Indian, Japanese and Thai, to name a few. Much to this vegetarian's delight, the area has seen an influx of these cuisines in recent years. But there are times when I'm in the mood for something different.

It was in this adventurous spirit that two friends and I - including one carnivore - made our way to Tajitu, an Ethiopian restaurant, on a recent Thursday evening. Owing to the traditions of the Ethopian Orthodox Church, Ethiopian cuisine has a rich vegetarian heritage. But our collective experience with Ethiopian food was quite limited, so we were looking forward to broadening our palates.

Situated in the old Snow White Grill building on East Patrick Street, Tajitu's dining room strikes the perfect balance between classy and casual. The walls are decorated with Ethiopian crafts and artwork, and traditional Ethiopian music sets a relaxed, sociable mood. On this particular evening, the place was about half-full of mostly smiling patrons.

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Most of the seating is conventional, but for those seeking a more authentic experience, there also are several mesobs - colorful, woven platforms which serve as tables, surrounded by stools and cushions. We opted for a mesob. With the menus, our server brought us warm, hand towels - Ethiopian cuisine consists entirely of finger food - which always makes me feel a little more at home.

To whet our appetites, we ordered a round of sambusas. These are very similar to Indian samosas - small, fried pastries, stuffed with lentils or beef. The lentil variety was quite good - crisp and flaky on the outside; warm and earthy with subtle bursts of spice on the inside. Our carnivorous friend was less impressed by the beef version, complaining that they were "a little dry."

The menu offers quite a selection of entres, including poultry, beef, lamb and seafood dishes, along with a generous array of meatless options. After much deliberation, my vegetarian companion and I both opted for the combination platter - our choice of any five vegetarian dishes - while the meat-eater chose the beef tibs.

Essential to any Ethiopian meal is injera, a thin, spongy flatbread with a mild tang like that of buckwheat. These are used in lieu of cutlery. One simply tears off a piece of injera and scoops up the desired morsel.

By the time our meals arrived - our server, though friendly, wasn't in any particular hurry - we were eager to start scooping. My vegetarian friend and I agreed that the mesir azefa (a generously seasoned blend of green lentils, onions and jalapeos) was the standout dish, with a mild but lingering heat and a savory quality that reminded us of potato salad. I also liked the tikel gomen (cabbage and potatoes, seasoned with onion, garlic and ginger) and the shuro wot (spiced chickpeas). I couldn't identify some of the more exotic flavors, but they tended toward the bright and astringent.

Other dishes met with less enthusiasm. The fosolia (sauted green beans, carrots and onions) struck me as bland and overcooked. The kik-wot (a mash of yellow split peas in spicy berbere sauce) was, frankly, inedible, and remained on the tray at the end of the meal.

On the carnivorous side of the table, the tibs (a stir-fry of beef, green peppers and onions) got a dubious reception. As with the sambusas, my friend reported that the meat was dry and lacking in flavor.

In short, it was a mixed bag: the good stuff was very good, and the other stuff ranged from forgettable to foul. I'm glad I decided on the combination platter, and I'd recommend the same strategy to others who are unfamiliar with Ethiopian cuisine; the menu offers similar options for nonvegetarians.

Despite the disappointments, we all found enough to make a satisfying meal, and the tab for the three of us (including two rounds of drinks) came to a little more than $100. A worthwhile experiment, but not one I'm especially eager to repeat.

Restaurant review: Tajitu



3 (out of 5)
Food: 3 stars
Value: 4 stars
Service: 3 stars
Ambience: 4 stars

Address: 9 E. Patrick St., Frederick, Md.

Hours: 11 a.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; closed on Mondays.

Phone: 301-631-6800

Style: Ethiopian

Web site: www.tajitu.com

Range: Appetizers are $3 to $5; salads are $3.50 to $6.50; vegetarian entres are about $9 (vegetarian combo platter is $16.50); meat entres are $16 to 19.50 (combo platter is $18); desserts are $4.

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