51 Oak St., Portland
Asmara, a new restaurant on Oak Street, takes its name from the capital of Eritrea: a small, coastal nation on the Red Sea that won independence from its much larger neighbor to the south, Ethiopia, in 1993. Eritrea’s history and location have produced a cuisine clearly influenced by other cultures in the region and beyond, but as a trip to Portland’s Asmara shows, Eritrean food is distinct and delicious in its own right.
My photographer and I stopped by for lunch on a recent weekday. We were welcomed by an exotic, yet faintly familiar smell that immediately got out mouths watering. Just as welcoming was the chef, who doubled as our server. She was a gracious and pleasant hostess who,unhindered by limited English, knowledgeably answered all my queries about Eritrean cooking and tradition.
The menu isn’t split between lunch and dinner options, but everything is reasonably priced ($1.75 to $5.75 for appetizers/light meals; $7.95 to $9.95 for entrees), and in line with lunch prices elsewhere in town.
I started with a glass of mango juice ($1.50), and was blown away to realize this was no ordinary, commercial variety, but rather a large glass of freshly juiced, ripe mangos. Incredible. This juice alone is reason to stop by Asmara if you’re in the neighborhood.
I also ordered honey wine, or meis ($3), a homemade concoction served in rubber-stoppered bottles. Its sweetness and consistency are reminiscent of mead.
I had a class to teach later that afternoon, so I indulged in only one sip, leaving the rest of my bottle to the photographer, who had ordered his own. The attempt at photography below is testament to this beverage’s potency.
The traditional dishes of Eritrea are called wots. Many wots are spicy stews made with a variety of meats and vegetables. We selected two: the fiery chicken stew (tsebhi derho) and the fiery lamb stew (zegenie beghie). There are milder chicken and lamb wots on the menu, too, as well as an ample selection of beef and vegetarian offerings.
All entrees at Asmara are served either with rice or on injera, a large piece of flat, spongy bread that doubles as the means of getting the food upon it from plate to mouth. Injera gets its unique flavor from teff flour, made from the smallest grain on the planet.
The lamb stew tasted similar to an Indian vindaloo. Likewise, the beef sambusa appetizer ($1.75 each) tasted like a beef-filled samosa – though such a thing, like anything with beef, is not in the Indian culinary vocabulary. The small chunks of lamb were bathed in a hot – but not too hot – red pepper sauce.
The fiery chicken stew brought Malaysian curry to mind. The tender meat fell from the bone with ease, making it easy to negotiate with the airy injera. It was accompanied on the plate by a hard-boiled egg (hi, Mom).
In addition to a small heap of salad, also served atop the injera, there are three options for side dishes. We tried the red lentil stew in red pepper sauce and the collard greens and kale in a mild yellow sauce (cabbage, carrots, and potatoes in a mild yellow sauce constitute the third choice). The lentils were rich and creamy and mildly seasoned – reminding me again of Indian cooking. The collard greens and kale were just what they needed to be: a mild, simple foil to a complex stew.
We topped off the meal with strong Eritrean coffee. It arrived in a vessel the chef said had been in her family for some time. It looked like a museum piece. Asmara also offers a traditional coffee ceremony for four ($6.50), during which the server roasts the beans right at the table.
Walking home — the photographer, a little wobbly and a lot wired, by my side — I thought of how meals at new restaurants often leave me feeling happy for the experience and content to return someday. Rarely do I feel the urge to return right away. Asmara is this rare exception.
— Mort Viande
Asmara is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to “9-ish.”