Start meals at either place with Ethiopian St. George pale lager and two sambossas (triangular pies), one beef-filled, the other stuffed with lentils. Flour tortillas serve as the pies’ flaky wrappers, providing a nice crunch when fried. Lucy’s pies are more boldly flavored thanks to a wallop of jalapeño in their stuffings.
From there, go for a vegan combination platter. Both restaurants include flavorful renditions of gingery yellow split-pea stew, green lentil stew, spicy red lentils, sautéed chopped greens (kale at Lucy, collard greens at Chercher), chopped beet salad and sautéed cabbage and carrots.
The food at both restaurants is high quality and carefully prepared, but I have some favorites at each. Presentations at Lucy are more polished. For example, Lemma places a small bowl on the serving platter before laying the injera on top; this creates a well in the center, which has more eye-appeal.
A standout at Chercher is fosolia be carote, carrots and green beans cooked slowly with tomato paste, garlic and onions until the vegetables are caramelized and imbued with umami richness. Doro wot, perhaps Ethiopia’s best-known dish, shines here. It’s a stew of braised organic chicken and a hard-boiled egg simmered in a gingery deep-brown gravy emboldened with berbere; it tingles slightly without setting you on fire. The house special tibs, a sauté of cubed beef tenderloin and thick slices of onion and jalapeño, is enhanced with Abebe’s secret spice mix—rosemary and garlic are clearly components. For those who prefer fish, salmon tibs sautéed with tomatoes, garlic, onions, ginger and large chunks of jalapeño do the trick. Don’t bother with the desserts at Chercher. A napoleon of flabby phyllo and curdled pastry cream is so sour on one visit, I had to transfer my first and only bite to my napkin.
At Lucy, don’t miss Lemma’s specialty, girgiro—cubes of beef or lamb marinated in red wine and sautéed with onions, tomatoes, jalapeños and a secret spice mix. It is served dramatically in a vessel over an open-flame, bubbling away and deepening in flavor as the meal progresses. “Only we make this dish,” Lemma says. “The hot sauce I make to go with it, koch-kocha, with garlic, fresh ginger, olive oil, jalapeño and hot habanero peppers and spices is very special—people come here just for that.”
Pescatarians will enjoy the deep-fried whole croaker that comes with timatim, a bright salad of chopped tomatoes, onions and jalapeños.
The Gurage kitfo at Lucy, lively with mitmita and Lemma’s cardamom-laced niter kibbeh, is a star. For texture and flavor contrast, I like to order half of it raw and the other half cooked. It comes in a special bowl (it resembles a large mortar) lined with enset leaves, which look like banana leaves. The extraction from those leaves is used to make a fermented breadlike food called qocha, which is served with the kitfo. (It has a dense texture I find unpleasant, so I stick with injera.) The kitfo is made with beef that Abraham drives to New Jersey every week to purchase because of its superior taste and quality, apparent in every bite. Scoop up a bite of the kitfo and the accompanying kale-laced ayib, a fresh cow’s milk cheese similar to cottage cheese. Finish your meal at Lucy with Lemma’s fine, honey-drenched walnut baklava.
I hope Abebe’s and Abraham’s hunch that diners in Bethesda crave Ethiopian fare pays off. During weekday and weeknight visits to both places in April, the crowds had not shown up yet. Weekends are hopping, but will that be enough to sustain them? Time will tell.
David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine.