Your first clues are found on Page 4 of the menu at Meleket Ethiopian Restaurant: Right there, next to the “fried burger” and the “poisson du jour” are two pastas, a pesto with chicken and a meatball plate. The owners, I immediately suspect, hail from Eritrea, the Horn of Africa country that has had a long, cantankerous relationship with Ethiopia.
Eritrea also has deeper ties to Italy than its neighbor to the south. Over several decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Italian colonizers left their mark on Eritrea, sometimes with the heel of a jackboot. They influenced Eritrea’s architecture, its agriculture and its cuisine. Those pasta dishes are a dead giveaway that the restaurant is an Eritrean outpost in a Silver Spring neighborhood dominated by Ethiopian businesses.
Meleket’s owners, I later learn, are natives of Asmara, the capital of Eritrea and the city that Mussolini once wanted to transform into Africa’s Little Rome. The owners are also related: They’re three of 12 siblings born into a large family. Since arriving in the United States, the trio has tasted success in business before combining their talents to launch Meleket: Habtamu Bayu owns a gas station. Sister Zuriashwork Bayu runs a catering operation, and brother Abe Bayu has built restaurants for others in the Washington area.
Many will tell you there’s no difference between Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisines. Abe Bayu is not one of them. He knows the subtle variations, but all the same, he feared diners might shy away from an Eritrean-branded restaurant, thinking it too foreign. So the Bayu family adopted the name of the African cuisine known all over Washington.
Chef and co-owner Abe Bayu also served as general contractor. (Dayna Smith/For the Washington Post)
Pastas aside, tomatoes play a significant role in Eritrean cooking, another hand-me-down from the Italians. Just taste the mesir wot at Meleket: The red lentil dish packs a predictable punch of berbere, the Ethiopian spice blend, but its wallop is softened by fresh tomatoes, which the kitchen cooks down until the fruits lose all form.
Those long-stewed tomatoes give the red lentils a sweet complexity missing from mesir wot preparations at traditional Ethiopian restaurants, where the dish usually adopts a scorched-earth policy of intimidation through blistering blast waves of spice. A similar sweetness creeps into other dishes at Meleket, too, such as the shiro wot, a silky preparation in which a lentil-and-chickpea powder is constituted with onions, oil and tomatoes, the last of which adds a slight acidic touch.
Meleket opened in July in a space below a second-floor psychic reader, where you can have your palm read and then use the same hand to dig into these East African finger foods served on spongy injera. Abe Bayu served as general contractor for his restaurant, creating a sleek wood-and-stone interior that ditches the conventional mesob baskets in favor of two-tops covered with white tablecloths. He also leads the kitchen, with an assist from Zuriashwork Bayu, the caterer who knows how to scale up recipes to feed large groups.
Abe Bayu is an unlikely chef, and not just because his most recent work experiences have come in the construction business. In Eritrean and Ethiopian restaurants, the chefs are almost always women, a reflection of East African foodways, which usually wind through the home. “Most men think going into the kitchen is not the man’s job,” the chef says. “They grow up with that mentality.”
The vegetarian platter. (Dayna Smith/For the Washington Post)
The sambusa appetizer. (Dayna Smith/For the Washington Post)
Gender roles notwithstanding, Bayu came by his love of food naturally. He started working at his mom’s restaurant in Asmara as a child. He eventually earned her trust and was given a chance to cook. Cooking soon became his all-consuming passion, even when he was toiling in other professions. His dream was to open his own restaurant by 40, an age when many decide their bodies can no longer absorb the shocks of the demanding hospitality trade. Bayu just missed his self-imposed deadline: He’s 43 now.
Bayu has the zeal of a late bloomer. His menu taps into his mom’s recipes but also includes American appeasements such as martinis, mini quesadillas and even an appetizer dubbed “Bayu bites,” in which a superb spiced mixture of chopped greens and fresh cheese sits atop slices of a crusty white bread, the first yeasted loaf I think I’ve ever seen at an Eritrean or Ethiopian restaurant. The chef also prepares a spot-on Buffalo sauce for his chicken wings, but if you ask me, he missed a prime opportunity to develop his own Eritrean alternative, the berbere wing.
One thing becomes apparent once you’ve sampled enough dishes at Meleket: Bayu has a good palate and, just as important, he uses it to taste his food before it moves into the dining room. Salt doesn’t just hide in spice blends, whether berbere and mitmita, but is incorporated at different stages to heighten the pleasure of Bayu’s dishes: The beef in his bozena shiro is chewy but expertly seasoned; the house-made sambusa packed with lentils and onions is somehow spiced to imitate a more meaty filling; and his turmeric-tinted cabbage, paired with carrots, would have had an almost caramelized sweetness if not for the salt and seasonings to keep it on this side of the savory line.
The kitfo, left, isn’t as spicy as Ethiopian versions. (Dayna Smith/For the Washington Post)
Doro wot, a chicken stew. (Dayna Smith/For the Washington Post)
Eritreans generally take a more humane approach to heat than their neighbors across the border. As such, the “special” kitfo at Meleket — a generous mound of raw beef, approximately the size of a human brain — is more fragrant than spicy, emphasizing the buttery pleasures of the flesh. Even the molten stews known as wots assume a mild persona, including the doro wot, a dark-and-shimmering chicken preparation that looks as threatening as a pit bull — until it reveals its soft, approachable underbelly.
Meleket exhibits some of the behaviors you expect from a restaurant run by first-timers. On busy nights, the kitchen can fall deep into the weeds. Service can be friendly but absent-minded; you may need to ask for napkins or a water refill. The menu sometimes provides a mere sketch of the dish that actually arrives, but new menus are promised soon.
Then there are the pasta plates, those specialties of the Eritrean table. One night I sampled Bayu’s pesto with chicken, a bowl overflowing with thin strands, each lightly coated with sauce. I tasted Parmesan. I tasted grilled chicken. I barely detected the sweet, ticklish flavors of fresh basil, the key to any good pesto. The herb’s meager presence seemed like a metaphor: The Italian influence on Eritrean cooking has become a faint echo.