Z: The tiny area covers only part of one block on South Fairfax Ave. between Pico and Olympic. We counted five Ethiopian restaurants and were challenged when it came to choosing just one. Enticed by the generous selection of vegetarian dishes listed on the menu attached to their door, we made our decision to sample Merkato's offerings.
R: It was instantly apparent that the restaurant's owners enjoyed creating an ambience that would transport customers to the African continent while they feasted. Bright colors were everywhere in the room. African paintings, wood carvings, and even musical instruments of Ethiopian origin adorned the walls.
Z: Hanging on the back wall was a large, attractive papyrus painted with traditional Egyptian figures. The front portion of the restaurant was outfitted with a row of messobs, the colorful handwoven basket tables with conical covers. The messobs were flanked by about 16 korichas, uniquely fashioned low seats hand carved in the form of narrow saddles. The brightly-striped fabrics covering each of the korichas provided an additional splash of decorative colors.
R: Oddly enough, no one was sitting at the messobs and korichas though there were many diners sitting at the traditional tables and chairs. Out of curiosity we simply had to try sitting in these saddle seats. Just as we thought, the tables and chairs were far more comfortable.
Z: Helena, our server, assured us the Vegetarian Combination we ordered would contain all of the items listed in the menu's vegetarian section. We were also assured that none of the vegetarian dishes contained butter, often used in Ethiopian cooking.
R: Relieved that we could enjoy a completely vegan meal, we each ordered the Yemiser Sambusa, an appetizer consisting of well-seasoned, spicy lentils encased in a baked triangle-shaped dough and eaten with the hands. This was not just a tidbit of an appetizer, but easily measured three-inches across, a hearty and delicious beginning and a pleasant portent of what was to come.
Z: Also quite hearty was the ample quantity of oil brushed on the dough that clung steadfast to the surface through the baking and reheating processes. Hardy souls that we are, we licked our fingers, reached for another paper napkin, and turned our focus to the numerous elements of décor.
R: Service is fast and efficient at Merkato. As soon as we finished our appetizers, Helena brought our Vegetarian Combination on a large platter that was about sixteen inches in diameter. Blanketing nearly the entire bottom of the platter was a large injera covered with mounds of various cooked stews.
Z: Each stew stood out from the rest, in color, texture, flavor, and ingredients, with two mounds, or portions, of most items. The Spicy Mashed Lentils, one of our favorite items, were cooked with a red pepper sauce and seasoned with garlic and a host of Ethiopian herbs. More delicate in flavor, but equally tasty was the Yekeke Alicha, yellow split peas, pureed and seasoned with garlic.
R: I'm not usually drawn to Cooked Collard Greens, but the chef at Merkato turns out a tasty collard dish seasoned with garlic and green peppers that compelled me to finish every green shred of it. Featured in the center of the platter was the Merkato Special Shiro, a creamy puree of ground peas cooked in a red pepper sauce with garlic, tomatoes, and complex spices that delivered mouth-watering flavors with each bite.
Z: We had a question about the Shiro and looked for Helena who seemed to have evaporated.
R: No problem, Brook appeared with her pleasant expression and told us that in Amharic, the Ethiopian language, Brook means blessed. She answered our questions with a smile and an enthusiasm that expressed a joyful heart.
Z: Yatkilt Alitcha, the mound of steamed cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and onions seasoned with vegetable oil, salt, and a touch of lemon offered a pleasant balance to the robust peas and lentil dishes. And, finally, the last mound was the Timatim Fitfit, a fresh salad of chopped tomatoes, onions, olive oil, jalapeno, lemon, herbs, and spices that was wisely light on the oil and perfectly seasoned.
R: Accompanying our giant platter of tasty specialties was a dish of folded injera, a giant, spongy, thin pancake-like bread. Because we've enjoyed Ethiopian food for many years, we knew exactly how to proceed. For the newbies who want to encounter the exquisite aromas and flavors of dining Ethiopian style, here's what you do. Tear off a piece of injera approximately two or three inches square, and use it to scoop up a portion of stew. Forks are only served upon request, so eating in the traditional manner involves using the injera for each bite of food you bring to your mouth.
Z: About halfway through the evening I became aware the room was filled with sounds and scents. A faint hint of incense perfumed the air, while the eclectic array of pop music in the background had me wondering why not Ethiopian music, instead.
R: African décor not only covered the walls, but the ceilings as well. The rear portion of the restaurant suggested a tent-like atmosphere with undyed natural fabric draped A-frame style across the ceiling. Floral, fringed upsidedown umbrellas hung from the ceiling in the front section.
Z: Another plus is Merkato's very reasonable prices. Our two dinners, two appetizers, and the bottle of Ethiopian beer we shared added up to less than $20. We truly enjoyed every morsel but must mention that those adhering to a strict low-fat diet may want to call ahead and make special arrangements with the chef.
R: After dinner, we explored the adjoining store that sold a colorful collection of gifts, CD's, clothing, jewelry, wood carvings, and Ethiopian herbs and spices.
Reviewed March 2003