3100 14th St. N.W. | Cuisine: Ethiopian | $
Rich Ethiopian flavors are worth the trek to Letena Ethiopian Restaurant, a no-frills eatery in the commercial area of Columbia Heights, Washington, D.C. Thick, flavorful stews, tibs — grilled or stir-fried meat — and coffee are staples at the Zagat-rated restaurant, which uses fresh ingredients and healthy cooking methods to prepare traditional Ethiopian dishes.
Owner Yamrot Ezineh, who has worked in the culinary field in both Ethiopia and the United Kingdom, brought her experience to D.C. when she opened the restaurant in October. The restaurant’s name, which means “for health” or “to health,” is reflective of its culinary vision. Letena’s clean lines and tastefully minimal decor reflect the modern architecture of Columbia Heights’ commercial area, while authentic Ethiopian artifacts lend interest to an otherwise neutral space.
Letena offers lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch, and is set to serve breakfast on weekdays, according to its website. Customers order, pay and receive their drinks at the front counter, then seat themselves in the main dining room or the more intimate corridor that adjoins it. Though the restaurant seats up to 80 guests, only a few tables are filled on a Sunday evening. The server brings a basket of complimentary injera, a sourdough flatbread typical of Ethiopian cuisine, to the table. Within five minutes, he delivers the main order — impressively quick service.
Letena’s combination platters provide the opportunity to try several dishes. The meat sampler ($18.50), which offers four pre-set meat dishes and two vegetable dishes or salads of the diner’s choice, arrives in six square dishes. Though the plates are small, the sampler’s rich selection provides enough food for two to share. As is customary in Ethiopian cuisine, diners forgo utensils and scoop the entrees with pieces of injera. However, to accommodate all customer preferences, Letena offers entrees pre-wrapped in injera, substitutes rice or bread for injera and provides utensils upon request.
Vibrantly colored and shiny with oil, the meat stews feature distinctive, potent flavors. The slightly sour, yeasty flavor of the injera cuts the stews’ saltiness to prevent it from overwhelming the palate. The deep red-brown sauce dominates the doro wot, a dark meat chicken stew. An initial tomato-like flavor reminiscent of British or French beef stew gives way to a spicy kick, while the chicken flavor is more subtle.
The decadent dark red color of the kay siga wot, a spicy beef stew, matches the intensity of its sweetness. The hearty flavor of the beef cuts the otherwise cloying sauce, and the dish’s underlying spiciness adds dimension. Oil sticks to the lips as diners savor the yellow-brown alicha siga wot, a beef stew with a thin, mild curry sauce. The beef is tender and has a distinct, but more delicate, flavor than that of the kay siga wot.
The palate blossoms with cardamom upon the first bite of the kifto, beef cooked to taste with hot chili powder and spiced butter. The most potently flavored and uniquely textured meat on the sampler platter, the ground beef is grainy and chewy — a notably different texture from the dense chunks of stew meat in other dishes.
The bright, mild sweetness of the kik, a yellow split pea compote seasoned with garlic and ginger, provides relief from the intense spices and rich texture of the meat dishes. Its flavor is so light, in fact, that the slight sourness of the injera is noticeable in each bite. While the flavor of the mushrooms is evident in the mushroom dulet — a medley of finely-diced vegetables and garlic in olive oil — garlic dominates the dish. The smooth mushrooms serve as a pleasant contrast to the bright crunch of the jalapeño, creating a dynamic combination of textures.
3100 14th St. N.W. | Cuisine: Ethiopian | $Despite the restaurant’s fast-casual setup, servers inquire about the quality of the food and offer injera throughout the meal. Having paid beforehand, diners need not wait for a check, and can enjoy Letena’s simple ambience. With hearty Ethiopian flavors sure to satisfy appetites, Letena has an eclectic menu that promises another compelling culinary experience upon return to Columbia Heights.