Entering Queen of Sheba, we're greeted by the aroma of coffee so rich that we could swear it has just been roasted. And indeed it has, as quickly becomes evident.
Seated in a circle on the floor in the middle of the dining room, people are participating in an Ethiopian coffee ceremony conducted by the restaurant's owner, Friesh Dabei. As it happens, the Saturday evening my wife and I have chosen to dine here coincides with the departure of a waiter, who has enlisted in the Navy. Dabei is blessing the next stage of his life with this enchanting ritual of her native country.
The dining room is nearly full, but we're offered the choice of dining at a Western-style table or at one of the colorful Ethiopian basket tables along one wall. We opt for the latter, whose circular tops are made to accommodate injera, a large pancake-shaped bread that's made from teff and serves as edible plate and eating utensil in Ethiopian cuisine. Instead of using a fork, you tear off a piece of the injera, use it to pick up a bit of the food that's served on the bread, and pop it into your mouth.
We had hoped to indulge in the Chef's Choice for two, a multi-course extravaganza of Ethiopian dishes served in succession. Featuring three or four appetizers, half a dozen entrees with vegetable sides, dessert (usually lime sorbet) and Ethiopian coffee (not the ceremony coffee, but a cup worthy of the reputed birthplace of coffee), it's a memorable feast for a bargain $54.95. But I am concerned that Dabei, who does the cooking, might be too busy on this particular night.
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After being reassured that the Chef's Choice won't pose a problem, we embark on a delightful gastronomic adventure. Our meal progresses without a hitch (the coffee ceremony concluded, Dabei had returned to the kitchen), and as far as I can tell, so do the meals at all the other tables.
The composition of the Chef's Choice varies, depending on Dabei's inspiration and diners' preferences. In our case, the feast begins with sinigg karia, fresh jalapeños stuffed with onions and herbs. Next come buticha, a hummus-like dip made from chickpeas, lemon juice and a touch of garlic and olive oil; and irgo betimatim, homemade yogurt topped with gently seasoned sautéed tomatoes.
Shrimp tibbs, marinated in rosemary, garlic and ginger, then pan-fried in clarified butter, leads off the entree procession. Yebeg watt follows, serving up cubes of lamb simmered in a fiery berbere spice mixture. Next come chicken tibbs and beef tibbs, each with seasonings subtly different from the shrimp. Fish alicha, nuggets of a mild white fish sautéed with a mild citrusy sauce, brings the parade of flavors to a satisfying conclusion.
Surrounding the entrees on the injera is a rainbow of vegetarian sides: atkilt watt (a moderately spicy medley of green beans, carrots and potatoes); kik alicha (yellow split peas simmered with turmeric and Ethiopian spices); yemisir kay watt, (a pungent puree of red lentils); and a refreshing, jalapeño-spiked variation on the potato salad theme called yedinich. Each rewarding in its own right, these and other meatless dishes make Queen of Sheba a popular destination for vegetarians.
For all its exotic rewards, the Chef's Choice hardly represents the extent of Queen of Sheba's offering. On other occasions, ordering à la carte has yielded such exotic delights as yetimatim, a vibrant tomato salad punctuated with chiles and onions; and yedoro watt, a culinary mother-and-child reunion of chicken legs and boiled eggs in a rich berbere sauce. Kitfo, freshly minced, lean raw beef mixed with seasoned clarified butter, is a must for fans of beef tartare.
Queen of Sheba opened in November in its current location, after construction forced the closing of the restaurant's original location in downtown Chapel Hill. Before that, Friesh Dabei owned Blue Nile in Durham. She has built a devoted following over the years, and her food is only part of the reason.
After watching her shuttle in and out of the kitchen to chat with customers, it's clear that she really means it when she says she treats customers like guests in her home. She'll even conduct a coffee ceremony for you if she isn't too busy. But, given the well-deserved popularity of the place, I wouldn't count on it.