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Ethiopian Food in L.A. -- A Fabulous New Dining Experience

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Meals by Genet on Fairfax is a romantic bistro in the style of an exotic French/African restaurant in Paris! Deliciously different, deeply enjoyable.

I know that the hoary old axiom, "variety is the spice of life," is corny and trite... but nevertheless it's usually true. We are all creature of habit, yet often it is exciting, stimulating, even productive, to break the mold, venture 'outside of the box' and try something new and different. I personally do it all of the time; it's part of what keeps me young at heart. Believe me, it can be a 'kick,' and never more so than in our eating/dining habits. We all go to the same handful of restaurants night after night and repeatedly eat the same foods. So I am respectfully suggesting that you trust me -- after all, I haven't failed you in 30 years of reviewing -- and take a trip into the deliciously exotic and exciting world of... Ethiopian food, as served up by a magnificent, attractive woman named Genet Agonafer at her tiny 12-table romantic bistro, Meals by Genet (1053 S. Fairfax Ave, just below Olympic, 323-938-9304), with street parking or valet about fifty feet north at the stand. There is also a small lot in the alley behind the restaurant.)

Genet Agonafer

Genet Agonafer is the Chef/Owner of this charming little restaurant on Fairfax.

I know, when I suggest you go to this wonderfully sophisticated little bistro tucked away in a section of mid-Fairfax Avenue called "Little Ethiopia," you will instinctively say, "What do I know about Ethiopian food? How do I know I will find anything I want to eat there? " Believe me, as have thousands of others, you will come away commenting about what you just ate, planning your next visit and whom you want to bring with you to proudly show them this wonderland. Yes, the food and the way of eating it is... different. But once you taste her chicken stew called Doro Wat ($18), you will be hooked... chicken on the bone cooked with ground red chilis and spices. ("It takes me at least two days to prepare it, cooking down the onions and adding about a dozen spices... cardamom, black pepper and ginger and so much more. It is our signature dish," she said.) Note the traditional hardboiled egg in it. And when you pull off a piece of the spongy, soft, habit-forming, crepe-like injera flatbread, made with leff, the grain of the Ethiopian highlands, and wrap it around a dollop of her spicy beef stew, Yebere Sega Tibs ($14), you will absolutely be hooked, a convert. One of three superb beef dishes to experience; another is Seanye Siga Wot ($16), think chunks of choice rib eye chopped fine and cooked forever in the amazing Ethiopian clarified butter with cardamom, green chiles and spices 'til it is meltingly tender to the bite. Service by the smiling Megan and astute Sean was seamless and efficient as they described how to eat and what it was.

serving food

Sean serving one of the dishes onto the bread-covered platter.

When you sit down you are offered a folded pillow of Injera bread, which serves as both the plate and serving utensil (you can request a fork, but why do it?)... you eat with your fingers enveloping the bread and scoop up bites from the platters in the center of the table. Such fun, and don't be fussy. Vegetables... a half-dozen or more will be on a lazy-susan platter in the middle of the table... some you will recognize, some you won't. Gomen, collard greens; Shimbura Asa, garbanzo bean puree; Souf Fifit, sunflower seed puree with jalapeno, red onions, olive oil and lemon juice, Azifa, smashed lentils dosed with a kind of mustard, and a green Ethiopian salad ($7 & 14). Every one will be interesting, worthy of a bite... or two or three.

Genet interior

The small restaurant is charming, romantic, and candle-lit.

This carnivore's favorite dish is a raw tartar, Special Kitfo ($14), chopped beef mixed with the spiced Ethiopian butter... totally addictive, served slightly warmed but not cooked. Did I mention the somewhat tart, garlicky lamb stew, Yebegasige Alitcha ($16), cooked to a mysterious sort of earthiness that transcends anything the Irish ever envisioned. Your smiling, friendly waiter will tell you to watch out for the little bones in it, but you will be too busy scarfing it up to do more than nod. This is not a seafood-friendly cuisine, since Ethiopia has been land-locked for a few decades, but Genet serves up a mean Fried Trout ($21), which is delicious. For dessert, there is friendly ice cream, usually vanilla topped with chocolate sauce, and a delicious cheesecake. Drinks are interesting... two excellent Ethiopian beers, Hara and Hakim, and you may try a glass of the Enat honey mead wine, but it is too sweet to continue. There is an $18 corkage fee and I think it pays to bring your own wine, a flinty white or earthy red, to accompany these spicy dishes.

platter for dishes

A serving platter of several dishes on a rotating Lazy Susan.

This Friday night, at a rather noisy gathering, Martha DeLaurentiis told us about her recent eight-day trip to Ethiopia for Save the Children, Patty Eisenberg told of an Ethiopian dinner she had cooked for her book club, while my two charming Muslim friends deeply impressed the table with a recounting of the origins of many of their faith's beliefs. I recently had an opportunity to chat with Genet... she told me that her catering business mainly serves the film industry (no, they don't serve the cast and crew only this food); in fact, she originally bought this place for its industrial kitchen before deciding to open the only truly gourmet Ethiopian eatery in the city. Yes, with its candle-lit white tablecloth atmosphere, small bar, African artifacts on the walls... it is somewhat elegant.

Such an interesting woman, Genet came here from Ethiopia on Valentine's Day in 1981, a single mother with a five-year old son. Went to work for the Brothers Ashkenazi at their Le Mondrian Hotel on Sunset as a waitress, for seven long years. Then worked nights cooking private dinners for customers. Finally she decided to open a restaurant, and acquired a space on La Cienega, opening in 2000. By then her son was a 23-year doctor/medical resident so he maxed out his credit cards to close the deal. (He is now working in New Zealand until June, the pride of her eye.) Owes a lot of her success to some food writers who admired her cooking, from Charles Perry of the L.A. Times to Jonathan Gold in the L.A. Weekly, who had said she is one of the great culinary wonders of our city.

I told her about my visit to Addis Ababa in the early sixties while scouting locations for Cinerama's The Lion, (never made). Emperor Haile Selassie was still in power, and he was encouraging the film industry to come there for shoots. I only remember a few good Italian restaurants in that city, lingering reminders of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in the thirties. And we commented on the 80,000 Ethiopians who were air-lifted to Israel in the early 80s and now have acclimated themselves to life there. (The Lost Tribe?) We laughed about the wonderful Ethiopian-born chef Marcus Samuelsson, of Aquavit, who has an enormous success in his new Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster.

I can't enthuse enough about the wonderful evening you will experience with Genet if you have an open mind and a decent appetite. It's fun, delicious and utterly enchanting, so venture down La Cienega to the eastern African country of Ethiopia and enjoy the adventurous culinary trip.

Meals by Genet is open from Wednesday to Sunday from 5:30 pm to 10 pm. Reservations are recommended. (323) 938-9304.

To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter (twelve monthly issues for $70), email him at jayweston@sbcglobal.net.