November 8, 2013
Real Food Traveler
Abel Woldemichael is tired of having his restaurant confined to “ethnic cuisine.” Late on a Friday night, Muzita, an Ethiopian bistro in San Diego, has finally quieted down. The young proprietor, a CPA by day with chin-length dreadlocks, tells us about his passion for mainstreaming Ethiopian food. “When someone says, ‘Let’s go out,’ I want them to say, ‘Shall we have Italian, French, or Ethiopian?’”
Woldemichael opened Muzita in the University Heights neighborhood of San Diego in 2008. The restaurant has garnered awards from Urban Spoon, Citysearch, the San Diego Tribune, and OpenTable.com, including “most romantic,” “best vegetarian,” and “top ten overall.”
When my friend Claire and I bumbled in, reservation-less, at 8:30 on a Friday night, Muzita was slammed. Diners occupied every table. Folks stood outside on the sidewalk. I could barely get in the door to request a seat. But the staff managed to be friendly, unrattled by the crowd and even displayed a sense of humor. They found us a table within 15 minutes.
We settled into a corner table for two and leaned in to converse. Despite Muzita’s awards for romance, this place is loud on a Friday night. If you’re on a date, the small side patio is preferable. Voices raised, we contemplated the menu. Vegetarians can choose from five main dishes. The shiro, a ground chickpea dish, tempted me. But I’d eaten little in the way of vegetables that day so decided hamli, braised collards and spinach, was in my best interest. Claire chose kantisha kilwa, which is zuchini, button mushrooms and stewed tomatoes. The other veg choices included seasonal stewed vegetables and a dish made with silken tofu. All these entrees are vegan except for kantisha kilwa, which includes butter. Each entrée comes with a side. I chose lentils berbere. Claire picked cabbage.
If you’re new to Ethiopian cuisine, don’t waste time looking for a fork. This is finger food. Our dinner appeared on one big piece of injera bread sitting on one big plate. Ethiopians cook this fermented flat bread from a grain called teff. Some of Ethiopia’s famed long-distance runners attribute their endurance to the protein, iron, calcium and fiber found in this tiny grain. Abel brought some of the uncooked grain out of the kitchen to show diners at the next table. Each granule is much smaller than rice, barley or other familiar grains.
Claire yearned for a fork. Roberto, our server, caught her scooping cabbage with the spoon she’d used to stir her tea. “Are you cheating?!” he asked good-naturedly. She reluctantly laid down her spoon and pulled off a strip of injera to wrap around her vegetables, just like an Ethiopian.
Germophobes might not like this dining style. You’ll definitely want all the members of your table to wash their hands first. In fact, Ethiopians ritually wash their hands in a bowl of water before and after every meal. I’m comfortable eating the injera and cooked vegetables by hand, but felt a bit barbaric when eating the green salad. Reaching to the middle of the table, instead of to an individual plate, also felt strange, and increased the odds of dropping food before it arrived safely to my mouth.
While I’d chosen the greens mostly for nutrition’s sake, they turned out to be the best thing we ordered. The finely-chopped collard greens and spinach took their flavor from onions and spices. Tomato lovers will enjoy the kantisha kilwa, which is heavy on the tomatoes and lighter on zucchini and mushrooms, with a buttery flavor. The lentils berbere were smooth, mild and golden. While the main ingredient of berbere sauce is chilis, these lentils tasted mostly devoid of spice. I requested a side of Muzita’s house-made chili sauce.
All Muzita’s recipes originate from the head chef: Abel’s mom. She works in the kitchen during the day shift, preparing all the sauces. This gives the owner an even more personal connection to his restaurant. These are the recipes he’s eaten all his life, prepared for him with love in times of happiness and sorrow.
Abel enlightened me about Ethiopia’s fascinating vegan tradition. Coptic Christians abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, and for 40 days before Advent and 56 days before Lent. All together, they observe about 250 fasting days each year. While fish is permitted, it’s usually expensive and difficult to transport. So during fasting days ordinary Ethiopians stick to foods of vegetable origin. Dishes usually revolve around potatoes, kale, pumpkin, or legumes.
“I didn’t know about vegan food at the beginning,” Abel said. When he first opened Muzita, he listed vegetarian dishes on the menu, but didn’t separate out those that were vegan. When he realized people wanted what he knew as “fasting food,” serving them became easy.
Because of the fasting food tradition, Muzita can serve authentic recipes without having to alter them for vegetarians. “Other places take recipes and use meat substitutes, but Ethiopian food has lots of foods that are naturally vegan. So you’re eating the recipe just how it’s supposed to be made,” Abel said. Abel’s family jokes that they can add meat to their traditional dishes to please customers.
Abel and his family have been in San Diego for 30 years now. While San Diego is far from the kingdom of Ethiopia, talking to the owner gave us a feeling of personal connection. Late on a Friday night on the Pacific coast, we were eating kantisha kilwa, Abel’s favorite food when he was a boy growing up by the Red Sea. And as a vegetarian, I would say it outranks French, Italian and sushi any day. — Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor
June 21, 2013
San Diego CityBEAT
Rolled injera, with delicacies to scoop
- Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
My mother always told me not to play with my food. Of course, my mother is neither Ethiopian nor Eritrean, and there were no local restaurants featuring those cuisines during my childhood. If there had been, she probably would have played with the food herself. And so it was that we ended up, my mother and me, at Muzita Abyssinian Bistro (4651 Park Blvd. in University Heights), an upscale Eritrean / Ethiopian restaurant in University Heights, to celebrate her birthday and play with our food.
The cuisines of Abyssinia (Eritrea and Ethiopia)—two countries locked in embrace and sharing common history and culture—are similar. The primary differences are that the lower elevations and coastline of Eritrea lead to a somewhat lighter cuisine incorporating more seafood. There is also this: Where Eritrea was colonized by Italy, Ethiopia is the only African country never colonized.
Another commonality is injera, a spongy, crepe-like sourdough bread made of teff flour that serves as both plate and utensil. The entire meal is served on a platter topped with a big round of injera, each dish in its own little mound with additional roles of injera on the side. The goal of the playing-with-your-food game is to use just enough of the injera to grasp the food but not smother it.
Among the best and most characteristic of Abyssinian dishes is tsebhi dorho (known as doro wat in Ethiopia), a flavorful dark-meat chicken stew cooked with more than a little bit of berbere (a red-chile-based spice blend that is their chili powder) and served with a hard-boiled egg. The result is undoubtedly spicy, but it's also well-balanced. The berbere does not overpower the dish but brightens it.
Another standout is beggie kilwa, lamb sautéed in clarified butter with onion, garlic, tomato, herbs and Serrano chiles. On two separate trips, the lamb was absolutely perfectly cooked, nicely seared but tender. The spice level was lower than it was with the tsebhi dorho—a tickle more than a burn.
There are also vegetarian options at Muzita. My favorite is the cabbage stewed with berbere, which was sweet and spicy yet still retained crispness on one visit (but a bit overdone on another). The lentils were less than exceptional, but roasted potato chunks were perfect.
Muzita's menu boasts, "You enter our restaurant, you are entering our home." But you don't suspect this place is a copy of their old place on the outskirts of Asmara or Addis Ababa. It's a nice house, well-appointed with a pleasant balcony with heaters. You have a sneaking suspicion that this is not quite the way it looks in the old country.
But it's the food that's Muzita's real source of comfort. What stands out is how unique, delicious and strangely comforting it is. How can something for which we have so little frame of reference, something so exotic, be so soothing? One part of it is those deep flavors. Another is that playing-with-your-food thing. It brings you back to a simpler time and place in your life. That, at least, is what my mother said.
June 3, 2013
San Diego Reader
A trip to University Heights' upscale Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurant of note offers sharp contrasts with other restaurants featured in this tour.
Muzita Abyssinian Bistro (4651 Park Boulevard, 619-546-7900) in University Heights isn’t an Ethiopian restaurant per se. It’s more Eritrean. Eritrea borders Ethiopia and the two countries share much in the way of culture and cuisine. For hundreds of years, the Abyssinian Empire comprised territory from both modern countries, hence the bistro’s name.
Because of the culinary similarities, I was able to order kitfo at Muzita. Served as a $12 appetizer instead of an entree, the minced top round had been seared and served warm. A spoonful ofmitmita and a small ramekin of salty cheese flanked the skillet of meat, the portion of which was much smaller than what I’d eaten at Harar as a main plate. Muzita’s injera was as good or better than any other. The soft, sticky, chewy rolls of bread had a deep, sourdough flavor that stood out even against the backdrop of spiced beef and warm butter.
A vegetarian entree of hamlit (braised spinach and collard greens, $12) came with a tomato-heavy version of atakilt, green salad, and the expected rolls of injera for the grabbing and scooping.
Muzita’s food was delicious, though no better than Harar’s and coming at a significant premium price. Entree cost pushed up to $18 for single plates! The service was excellent, friendly and professional, and the atmosphere in the restaurant was cozy and welcoming. Really, that’s where the difference lay. Muzita was much more of a complete restaurant experience than previous stops in this trip through SD’s Ethiopian restaurant circuit.
I think, for some people, that’s where the problem is. They feel that it’s “inauthentic,” precisely because the crowd that eats at Muzita includes more tourists and local North Parkers than people from the Horn of Africa.
But there’s the rub. Because of that fact, Muzita is better at being a restaurant, at making us feel served and catered to, than the other spots. The others are excellent places to get food, but not particularly great restaurants. At Muzita, you will pay more. Not because the food is any better, but because there is a wine list, a cordial host, attractive decor, heaters on the patio, and incense in the bathroom. Maybe that takes part of the charm out of eating with your hands, maybe not. It certainly makes Muzita the kind of place you might go every once in a while, instead of on any given day.
August 7, 2012
My wife and I were in San Diego for a conference, and we always like to try find locally owned places to eat. We tried two new places this trip, and Muzita was worth the effort.
San Diego has a good transit system, so we rode Bus 11 from downtown to University Heights. It's a great option from the standpoint of time, costs and the environment. The daily transit passes for both of us is $10 per day vs. nearly $40 per day parking at downtown hotels plus the car rental, and then you have to consider waiting for the valet to bring out your car, drive to University Heights and find parking. And, after dinner you get to do it all in reverse. The bus is so much easier!
Muzita is in a fairly small building, with a cozy dining area and a few outside tables. Since it can cool off quickly in the evenings, we decided to eat indoors.
Our server was very helpful. I don't recall eating Ethiopian food but once several years before, so I really didn't know much about the menu choices, seasonings, etc. She explained everything and helped my wife pick gluten-free items. Having checked the menu beforehand, I knew they would have some acceptable options. And, she advised my wife to use lettuce instead of injera to scoop up her food.
The food was prepared well and served in a fairly short time. For entrés were Siga Kilwa (sautéed beef) and Beggie Kilwa (sautéed leg of lamb). Our sides were Caulo (braised green cabbage and stewed tomato) and Alitcha Atakilti (seasonal stewed vgetables). I liked everything, and the entrees were excellent. To be honest, I liked the cabbage better than the seasonal veggies, but that's just my preference.
If you've never been to an Ethiopian restaurant, the food is served family-style on a plate covered with a layer of injera, and it is great for sharing. You don't get utensils, so you scoop up your food with a piece of the extra injera. The piece of injera under the food will soak up the extra juices from you foods, and it's good too.
About injera: Injera is a sourdough bread made from a grasslike grain called 'tef' that is a very important grain in the Ethiopia region. Tef is gluten-free. BUT, be sure to ask if there is any wheat flour in the injera wherever you go, because they do add about 10% WHEAT FLOUR here at Muzita. Almost every recipe you'll find online for injera will include wheat flour. Since injera is a sourdough bread, it will have a stronger flavor than sliced white bread from your supermarket. Some people like it, some don't. Personally, I liked it a lot and could eat a basket of it, but that much would likely mess with my diabetes. The amount I ate for dinner didn't cause any problems at all, though.
We will go back next time we're in San Diego, and we'll try to get some of the youth from the conference to go with us and try something besides cheeseburgers!
Trip Advisor Top Contributor
July 5, 2012
As many of my coworkers know that I write about food as a hobby, I often get a lot of encouragement or questions about the hobby. Based on some of the feedback I get, I've been able to improve the blog. One of the suggestions I received was to include some of my coworkers in the meals on occasion. However, that in itself presents some challenges as many coworkers are vegetarian, or perhaps not too adventurous in diet.
One day, one my coworkers raved to me about a meal he enjoyed at Muzita; after looking at the restaurant's website, I thought there might be some nice potential in a restaurant where I could invite all my coworkers along., or perhaps not too adventurous in diet.
Muzita is an Abyssinian Bistro which serves Ethiopian or Eritrean food. What this really means is that to eat, one uses their hands and a special bread called injera to hold the food. The injera is a cross between an Indian roti and cake in that it is rolled out in sheets, but is very light and fluffy in texture. At Muzita, the injera is made in-house. The actual cuisine is somewhat of a cross between North African stews and Indian curries. Entrees served in a large family style plate are even covered with a mini straw tagine-like cover.
teff encrusted bamya - okra, whole teff, awaze roasted tomato, caramelized cippolini onion, golden pepper emulsion
This dish seemed to be poised as a vegetarian crowd-pleaser. The okra was nicely fried and were arranged in an artistic tower shape.
sambusas - alitcha atakilti, hamli, dorhi tsebhi
fillings (left to right) - chicken, spinach and collard greens, stewed vegetables
The sambusas seem to be an Eritrean take on Indian samosas. They came as a variety platter of different flavors. The dough covering was nicely fried and the sambusas were enjoyable overall.
crispy calamari kilwa - cornmeal coated calamari, brined peppers, preserved lemon harrida sauce
The calamari were tasty, but again this seemed more like a crowd pleaser.
As I didn't sample all the entrees, I've only included comments on the ones I tasted.
The entrees are mainly broken down into protein or vegetable with two sauces - tsebhi and kilwa. The tsebhi is more of a heavy herbal and spice mix while the kilwa is a tomato based sauce.
tsebhi dorho (upper right) and siga kilwa (lower left) - hamli, alitcha atakilti, injera
I settled on the tsebhi dorho (chicken) as my entree and shared with siga (beef) kilwa. The entire dish was served on a bed of injera, and additional injera was provided to couple with the meal. The all of the cuisine was spiced heavily and aggressively. Of the two sauces, I appreciated the tsebhi more - there was a real depth of flavor to the sauce, which reminded me somewhat of a mole.
I also had the opportunity to try a prawn kilwa. The sauces really were the same and the protein didn't really contrast much or add much flavor to the dish. My guess is that historically, these heavily spiced dishes were developed either as a result of using the spices for preservatives or to cover the taste of spoiled meat, so the quality of the protein is somewhat covered. Still, the heavy spices were enjoyable for a meal.
shiro - ground chickpeas
As previously mentioned, I dined with a large group of vegetarians as well. Surprisingly, the shiro was the dish of the night for me. The flavor, spice, and consistency of the shiro was great. It really resembled a hummus that had been heated and taken to another level in terms of spice and texture. Paired with the injera, this was perfect for dipping and soaking in lots of flavor.
When sampling new cuisine types, it is often important to keep an open mind about the food. I felt that overall, the experience was rewarding and the food was very tasty. The injera was a very special staple food and one has to try a good one themselves to really understand how special it is.
On the other hand, a classically trained French chef sampling this food would feel that all the main components were overcooked. While this level of cooking remains loyal to the traditional aspect of the food, it could also be the last straw to ruin a non-adventurous eater's experience as there already are no utensils.
Overall Muzita is an interesting dining experience and I would return, but I'll probably order the shiro as my entree next time.
June 19, 2012
San Diego CityBEAT
If you thought you loved craft beer, just ask an Ethiopian about tej. A type of honey wine renowned for its spicy-sweetness and potency, the popular drink is as integral to Ethiopian culture as Stone IPA is to San Diego’s.
Exploring the flavors of Ethiopian honey wine
Itâ€™s the original home brew
By Peter Holslin
Photo by Peter Holslin
If you thought you loved craft beer, just ask an Ethiopian about tej. A type of honey wine renowned for its spicy-sweetness and potency, the popular drink is as integral to Ethiopian culture as Stone IPA is to San Diegoâ€™s.
But Ethiopians have been making tej a lot longer than San Diegans have been drinking beer. Though itâ€™s unclear when it all started, mentions of tej in the region appear as far back as the third century A.D. And while the wine was once reserved for emperors and their cronies, tej is so popular nowadays that itâ€™s considered the East African countryâ€™s national drink.
Unlike with beer brewing, you donâ€™t need any fancy equipment to make tejâ€”just a lot of honey and water, a big container and a pile of gesho, a hoppy buckthorn that gives the wine its kick. You can get bags of gesho at Ethiopian shops like Awash Market (2884 El Cajon Blvd. in North Park) and Axum Market (4487 El Cajon Blvd. in City Heights) for as little as $4.
Of course, a number of Ethiopia- and U.S.-based wineries produce tej on a mass scale. But many Ethiopians and tej-loving foreigners prefer to make it themselves. For Harry Kloman, author of the book Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A., the home-brewing process is as sweet as tej itself.
â€œI do it in one-gallon jars in my kitchen, and after about a week-and-a-half to two weeks, you can smell it,â€ he says. â€œEvery time I walk into my kitchen, I just smell this sweet, pungent aroma of fermentation, and itâ€™s just wonderful.â€
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Techniques vary slightly, but the brewing process basically boils down to a little mixing, some proper timing and a lot of waiting around. (For detailed instructions, see Klomanâ€™s video) But no two glasses of tej taste the same.
As for winery-made tej, one common brand is Nigest Honey Wine, an Ethiopian import with hints of spiciness, a syrupy aftertaste and a cloudy-brown complexion. Be careful, though, because itâ€™s a rather divisive wine: While one American friend of mine appreciated its earthy flavor, another felt quite the opposite, saying it tastes like cough syrup.
Some Ethiopian tej drinkers are even harsher. When I mentioned Nigest to Yeshume Beru, the owner of Red Sea Ethiopian Restaurant (4717 University Ave. in City Heights), she made a sour expression and said, â€œThatâ€™s not tej.â€
When I had a big glass of her personal home brew, the difference was remarkable. Her tej had a deep, golden hue. Little brown specks of what I suppose were gesho floated at the top. With its creamy texture and sumptuous sweetness, it couldâ€™ve been a dessert wine, but it contrasted nicely with the food an Ethiopian friend and I were eating, some of which was peppered with berbere, a slow-burning spice mixture.
Alas, due to food-and-beverage regulations, home brew canâ€™t be sold in restaurants. But that isnâ€™t stopping one local restaurant from brewing up its own tej. The owners of Muzita Abssinian Bistro (4651 Park Blvd. in University Heights) have purchased Elsa Winery & Mead in Orange, Calif., and plan to launch a brewery once they obtain the necessary licensing.
In the meantime, Muzita continues to serve the wineryâ€™s remaining bottles, which come in two kinds, â€œmildâ€ and â€œsweet.â€ Casual tej tasters might like the sweet kind, which is light, refreshing and faintly reminiscent of white wine.
If youâ€™re game to brew your own tej, though, keep in mind that little things make a difference. Meskerem Bekele, owner of Harar Ethiopian Restaurant (2432 El Cajon Blvd. in North Park)â€”who makes tej on special occasionsâ€”advises against handling spices and onions before making the mixture, lest you contaminate it with foreign flavors. Kloman recommends pouring a little fermented tej into the mix to jump-start the fermenting process.
Ultimately, though, the best advice is to stick to the basics. While some brewers and wineries make fake tej with processed sugar and food coloring, Beru keeps her tej pure.
March 12, 2009
U-T San Diego
The gourmet ghetto along Park Boulevard – that international stretch of quality dining in the heart of University Heights – has a new prime-time date spot.
My guess: Couples go to Muzita Abyssinian Bistro for its fresh, uncomplicated take on Ethiopian and Eritrean food – it balances out romantic complications. Or it's because the converted bungalow is low-lit, cozy, somewhere you and the S.O. would happily hole up during a monsoon.
All right, it's the eating with your hands part: very sensual.
And Abel Woldemichael, a fine-boned restaurateur with dreadlocks hanging like dark ropes down his back, is there to make sure your date isn't stressful. Woldemichael and his wife, Yorda Tesfamichael, opened Muzita last October. In between the hard work of getting the traditional East African dishes cooked by his wife and his mother, Letenegus Araya, onto the rough wooden tables, Woldemichael takes time to give backstory. (Those photos are Yorda's hands, painted with henna on their wedding day. Muzita is named after a sister, a kindhearted cook recovering from an aneurysm.)
Unrushed even when Muzita nears its 50-person capacity on weekends, Woldemichael will trot over a small vial of a sand-like grain called teff to explain what the spongy, sour Injera bread is made of.
The dining experience here is for the easygoing, too – because you “throw away the fork and use your hands.” It's Muzita's mantra, and custom in the East African region (aka Abyssinia).
You tear off a piece of Injera and use it like a utensil to pinch bite-size portions of your meal. This will be explained during the culture lesson your servers give you (“Have you been here or had Ethiopian before?”), as they hand out prepackaged wet cloths to clean your hands and suggest you eat family-style.
Say yes, and a big platter of Injera is spread out like pizza dough and topped with your table's entrees and side dishes (stewed vegetables, collard greens any Southerner will appreciate or lentils).
Expect to see a menu with African names alongside a full English description. But doesn't Teff Encrusted Bamya sound better than fried okra? Whatever you call the breaded veggie with roasted tomato and caramelized cippolini onion, it's sweet, creamy and crunchy. The cornmeal-coated Crispy Calamari Kilwa, served with brined peppers and a lemon-herb dipping sauce, is gritty goodness. The Azifah Fitfit, red lentils, has a smoky, bottom-of-the-pot feel.
While you wait for the main event (remember, there are just two cooks), get to know the Mess (honey wine) or luscious Golden Kaan Pinotage, a heavy South African red that's like eating a berry pie by yourself.
Anything Muzita does with lamb is memorable. And for weeks you will have flashbacks about the way your Prawn Kilwa exploded deliciously in your mouth. The seared ono, a thick cut of fish with only a faint ginger-and-butter spice, is not as impressive – especially when you could get the African equivalent of chicken and gravy instead. Called Tsebhi Dorho, the drumstick has an inch of an earthy spice rub – berbere – clinging to it. You will coldly take note if your date snags the last bite of it.
If you have had Ethiopian food before, you will recognize these dishes, although the Woldemichaels are from neighboring Eritrea. What's the difference between the two? Not much, when it comes to food. As Abel Woldemichael says with an easy smile, it's like comparing food from Northern and Southern Italy. Only the Italians really notice the difference: It's all pasta to you.
Friday, Saturday: 11am–11pm