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Vegan for the Holidays

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Vegetarians in Paradise
 Dining in Paradise

In most restaurant reviews the reader sees the restaurant experience from one person's point of view. In the reviews of the Vegetarians in Paradise, the reader experiences the eatery from the point of view of two people in dialogue form. Vegetarians in Paradise brings you those two intrepid restaurant aficionados, Zel and Reuben Allen, who will take you along as they eat a swath across the Los Angeles environs.


Z: Sunday afternoon was a great time to catch up on what was happening at the Los Angeles County Art Museum and to see the Ottoman calligraphy exhibit. We talked about going out to dinner afterward but hadn't made any definite plans. Our spontaneity led us to a unique experience at a restaurant that is not primarily vegetarian but very vegan friendly. Now, if you can endure Reuben's complaints about his growling stomach, we'll share our experience with you.

R: Whew! That was exhausting! Looking at all that calligraphy and those illuminations and watching the Turkish dancing at the museum wore me out. I'm starved! How about dinner at Messob. It's not too far from here. Let's go see wot's up.

Z: Oh, Reuben! That's a pretty terrible pun, but yes, I love the idea. Just don't say we're going there to get stewed. We headed down South Fairfax to Little Ethiopia, appropriately named for its many Ethiopian restaurants and stores lining both sides of the street.

R: We had been to Messob before, but just out of curiosity, we peeked into the other restaurants. Each had a character of its own, but Messob was the only one that was bustling with people. That was reassurance enough! We were escorted to our table by Hirut, a petite young Ethiopian woman with a beautiful smile. Her English language skills were limited, but she was able to tell us that she has been in Los Angeles for only two years. In her homeland she spoke Amaharic.

Z: Since we had to quell Reuben's hunger pangs in a hurry, we immediately focused on the menu, with its listings of dishes that most of us don't find on restaurant menus. The Ethiopian style of cooking includes a number of well-seasoned stews called wots. The wots are served with injera, a huge, flat, spongy, sourdough flavored pancake. At Messob they prepare two kinds of injera--one made entirely from Ethiopia's native grain called teff, and the other, a combination of teff, barley, corn, and millet. For us veggie folks there were several vegetable wots and a special Vegetarian's Delight. The decision was not difficult. We ordered the Delight, fondly remembering the flavors we enjoyed on our first visit here.

R: I looked around the simply decorated room and noticed the little hut in the window. The roof was woven palm fronds, the enclosure was bamboo with seagrass wrapped supports, and inside was a low table with seating for six to eight. It was perfect for a small dinner party.

Z: Soft music played in the background, pleasant instrumental Ethiopian melodies so different from the familiar drum rhythms we usually relate to African music.

R: In the center of the room there were three patio-style umbrellas in subdued African designs and trimmed with long, black knotted fringes. Under each umbrella was a messob, which we learned was the name for a serving table topped with a conical-shaped cover. Each messob (logo above) is hand woven from natural and dyed savannah grasses twined into traditional African patterns and is surrounded by four chairs, creating an intimate dining niche.

Z: Hirut delivered a large tray filled with 14 mounds of colorful, aromatic vegetable wots placed on top of a layer of injera. She returned shortly with a basket of injera. Then the fun began. Picture this. There are no forks on the table. The Ethiopian tradition is to tear off a piece of ingera and use it to scoop up a little wot. We heard the party at a nearby table request forks, but we decided to pursue the native style. We even partook of gursha, the Ethiopian custom of placing a morsel of food in another person's mouth.

Teff R: You're probably wondering what was in those tasty 14 mounds of wots, so here goes: There were two mounds of each dish. Yater Alitcha, a delicious soft stew of steamed yellow split peas seasoned with garlic and ginger; Yatakilt Alitcha, a steamed vegetable combination of cabbage, carrots, and potatoes seasoned with garlic, onion, and ginger; Yemisir Wot, a lentil stew in red pepper sauce nicely seasoned; Collard Greens steamed and delicately seasoned with garlic and green chiles; Pumpkin Wot made with chunks of the sweetest pumpkin I ever tasted and seasoned with tasty exotic spices; Salad of lettuce and tomato; and Tomato Fit-Fit, a tomato stew served cold and combined with pieces of injera.

Z: What an earthy experience! Not only did we taste our food, we got to feel it, too! Every mouthful, or should I say handful! And what flavors! The aromatic seasonings we were curious about come from a combination of shallots, red hot pepper (none of our dishes were spicy), fresh ginger, cardamom, cumin, coriander, curry, and a few herbs that are not grown in this country, but imported from Ethiopia. At our request, Hirut brought us some teff injera. The flavor was reminiscent of a rich, dark, sourdough whole wheat bread, but with even more depth of flavor. Heavenly!

R: There's an Ethiopian expression, "It is said that people who eat from the same plate will never betray one another." Well, that dinner certainly brought us closer than ever. We were surprised to learn that our dessert of baklava is common on Ethiopian tables or should I say messobs.

Z: Reuben finished with a cup of spiced tea that was presented in a footed glass demitasse cup resting on a saucer. As I leaned forward for a taste, the zesty aroma of cloves drifted across the table. What a delightful finish!

R: Our host, Iyob, a warm, personable man visited at each table, fulfilled requests, and willingly answered our questions about Ethiopian traditions. Iyob proudly told us he was the fiance of Rahel Woldmedehin, who opened the restaurant in 1985. Fully stuffed, we headed home, resavoring the highlights of our delicious meal all down the freeway.

Messob Ethiopian Restaurant
1041 South Fairfax Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Open 7 days a week, lunch and dinner from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.

Reviewed April/May 1999

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