I started this blog with the happy discovery of a good pain au chocolat—something that did not exist in Honolulu before Fendu Boulangerie opened. On Thursday another non-indigenous craving was sated—at a pop-up Ethiopian restaurant. Now, every Thursday, J2 Asian Fusion, the offshoot of Praseuth Luangkhot’s JJ Bistro in Kaimuki, hosts Addis Ababa Hawaii’s Ethiopian Thursdays. Meron and James Spencer launched the event just three weeks ago—and 82 people showed up. On the event’s second night, 75 came for dinner, and this week the place was packed as well. A lot of the diners are some of Honolulu’s brightest academic stars—James is a political science professor at the University of Hawai‘i, so you can imagine what his email invitation list is like. (That’s how I found out about the dinner, from my American Studies superstar prof friend.) Meron is from Addis Ababa and she’s earned a name among friends for her dinner parties. The next step was taking it public.
The result is Ethiopian Thursdays, with Meron in the kitchen and James getting the word out and chatting up guests. The cuisine that has colonized the restaurant guides of cities from Seattle to New York is finally available here. And judging by the turnout, people have been gnashing their teeth waiting for some doro wot.
Central to the Ethiopian meal is injera—a crêpe in shape, but a sourdough in flavor. It serves as plate and utensil—pretty genius. Injera is made from teff—a (gluten-free!) grain endemic to Ethiopia, and the Spencers ship it in from mainland distributors. Having no previous restaurant experience, the couple is learning about suppliers as to go along—after making injera from one of their early teff shipments, they found the bread strangely gritty. They learned the flour had been cut with sand. (If you’re used to having an extra plate of injera with your meal, as one of my dining companions is, don’t wait for it—it won’t come. At this point the Spencers need to be judicious with their teff.)
Up to now Ethiopian Thursdays has been a three-course prix fixe dinner, but next week it goes à la carte. If you’re familiar with the cuisine, you’ll find all your favorites—tibs wot (spicy beef stew), leba kibs (marinated, pan-fried lamb cubes), and that veggie combo of misir wot (lentil stew), gomen wot (collard greens), cabbage-potato mix and beets. There is something the way the slight sourness of the injera tempers the berbere spice in the wot that create an umami tsunami.
Not yet on the menu is kitfo—Ethiopia’s piquant version of steak tartare. The Spencers want to gauge whether there will be demand for it—they don’t want a fridge full of raw meat to go to waste (though kitfo is also served cooked). So if you like kitfo, and you go to Ethiopian Thursdays, let them know that if kitfo was on the menu, you would surely order it.
The Spencers wonder if, after this initial rush of wot and tibs lovers, customers will continue to sustain the Ethiopian enclave. I think the initiated and Ethiopian-curious alike will make immediate plans to return after sampling Meron’s cooking. Tip: While you’re waiting for food (it takes a little while), walk uphill to Tamura’s for a beverage. The manager there is nuts about Ethiopian food and he’ll steer you to great pairings.
Addis Ababa Hawai‘i’s Ethiopian Thursdays, 5-9:30pm, c/o J2 Asian Fusion, 3441 Wai‘alae Ave at 9th Ave (across the street from Town), 628-8461, firstname.lastname@example.org. Reservations recommended—or you might find yourself cooling your heels on the sidewalk. BYOB.