Bethesda diners can finally unearth the authentic flavors of Ethiopia without traveling to well-known enclaves of the cuisine in Silver Spring or Washington, D.C., by visiting Lucy, a new restaurant named for the remarkably intact fossilized hominid species excavated in the African country in 1974.
Diners in the area have lost a few longtime dining destinations recently, including Redwood and Lebanese Taverna in downtown Bethesda and The Classics in Silver Spring. But a few intrepid restaurateurs with less familiar cuisines have stepped into Bethesda’s open real estate, including the owners of Lucy, the Bethesda offshoot of the popular Silver Spring Ethiopian restaurant, which opened in the former Grapeseed location on Cordell Avenue at the end of February.
This is the second restaurant for chef and co-owner Seble Lemma and her husband, Mekonnen Abraham. They chose Bethesda for their second location because of the large concentration of diners there, many of whom they have noticed in their restaurant in Silver Spring. “We wanted to bring a unique cuisine with many vegan options” to what they believe is a demographic that is ready for it, Abraham said.
Other than adorning the restaurant extensively with murals—including a large one by the door depicting the history of Ethiopia and a graceful representation of “Lucy” over the bar, all painted by local artist Tesfaye Wondmagegn—Lemma and Abraham haven’t transformed the layout dramatically from its previous incarnation, and two large TVs distract from an otherwise peaceful environment. However, what comes out of the kitchen is a complete 180-degree turn from the former occupant’s Continental fare.
During a weekday lunchtime visit, and again on a weeknight, the restaurant was quiet, with just a few of the 13 tables occupied. However, during prime time on Saturday night, the joint was buzzing with a broad demographic of customers enjoying a new dining option in the neighborhood.
Food and drinks
For the uninitiated, Ethiopian cuisine is often presented like an artist’s palette, with small servings of colorful, spiced vegan and meat dishes spaced symmetrically around a large platter topped with injera bread. The food is scooped by hand using torn pieces of the thin injera, a soft, spongy, sour-tasting flat bread. It makes for a fun, hands-on dining experience. Ultimately, you can even eat the “plate.”
But beware: Eating the “plate” can be filling. I’ve found the injera soaked in the deeply flavorful sauces is irresistible, but especially when consumed with a tasty Ethiopian beer, it can be quite filling. I’d recommend eating slowly and keeping the pinches of injera small.
Think of starting the meal with a warm, flaky sambusa ($4), a savory stuffed pastry that is reminiscent of an Indian samosa. We found the lightly spicy beef more enjoyable than the lentil variety, which had an unpleasant aftertaste. However, the main fare is very filling, so consider skipping appetizers if you are ordering the “special platters,” and move right to the main course.
Ethiopian food is a vegan or vegetarian’s dream and can also be ideal for those with gluten-free diets, if they stick to the Ethiopian injera rather than the “regular” injera that mixes wheat flour with the traditional teff. Ethiopian injera is slightly more sour and more brittle, but we still found it pleasing.
The extensive vegan combination platter ($18) includes eight small dishes. Our favorites were the yatekilt wot, which is stewed string beans with carrots, and the twice-cooked lentils, called azifa. Heat seekers, be sure to request the chef’s homemade hot sauces made from garlic, chilies and Ethiopian spices.
Beginning in mid-April, on Thursdays through Saturdays, Lucy was expected to start serving Kurt (aka Ethiopian sushi), which is a dish made of fresh raw ribeye in an Ethiopian hot sauce (depending on availability).
Omnivores may want to add a couple of meat dishes to their platter, such as Doro Wat ($15), bone-in chicken with a rich, red berbere sauce that reminded me of a Mexican mole; or flavorful (but in our case, slightly too chewy) lamb or beef tibs ($16), which are cubes of meat, cooked with herbs, butter and onions.
Less adventurous eaters might enjoy the Fish Gulesh ($14), cubed pieces of fried white fish with a mild, tangy sauce and served with rice and tomato salad, or even spaghetti with tomato or meat sauce ($11-$15). (Ethiopia was occupied by Italy briefly in the 1930s, which may help explain the country’s strong pasta and espresso culture).
Lucy offers several Ethiopian wines and beers. If you like sweet wine, try the Ethiopian Enat honey wine ($10). For a drier red, try the Acacia-Girar ($10). The St. George beer ($7) offers a cooling contrast to the North African spices. There is a full bar, but I recommend skipping the the Lucy Mule ($12), which, with its splash of beer, was a bit acrid-tasting for this cocktail lover.
Finish the meal with a slice of warm, buttery, honey-sweet baklava ($6). Stay tuned this summer for the launch of coffee time from 3 to 5 p.m., which will feature an Ethiopian coffee ceremony and coffee service.
The ability of the servers to communicate fluently in English varied on our visits and on calls to the restaurant. But all of the servers were cheerful and wanted to please guests.
Go or skip?
Lucy’s chefs may have tamed the traditionally spicy flavors a tad to fit into Bethesda’s demographic, where fewer Ethiopians are likely to stop by for a taste of home, compared to restaurants in Silver Spring or along Ninth Street in D.C. But the flavors are deep and exciting, the food is fresh, and the atmosphere and service are pleasant, so give Lucy a go.
Aviva Goldfarb is a freelance food and travel writer who lives in Chevy Chase. Find her at AvivaGoldfarb.com or on Twitter and Instagram @AvivaGoldfarb.