Kitfo (raw or rare beef, spiced with clarified butter), Injera Bread, Kik Alitcha (vegetarian split yellow peas)
Occupation: Superstar Mother of Three
Location: El Sobrante
Favorite Restaurant: Zeni Ethiopian Restaurant
Reviewed Zeni Ethiopian Restaurant: Friday, November 28, 2008
Zeni is an Ethiopian restaurant that is in a small, unassuming strip mall in San Jose. San Jose? I know, I know — there are so many Ethiopian restaurants that are closer to the City! But having tried almost all of them, I can safely say that this is the best! You can’t find food this close to an authentic Ethiopian meal unless you are sitting in my mother-in-law’s kitchen. Yes, my husband is from the land of milk and honey, and I have had a crash course in the rich Ethiopian culture, which is steeped in tradition and has an amazing cuisine. So, if it’s authenticity you desire in a new cuisine, Zeni will deliver. If you’ve never had an Ethiopian meal, this is definitely the place to start!
We having been coming here for years, and it is getting more and more popular, so be prepared to wait if you come on a weekend. Or better yet, come early and beat the crowds. The diners are a mix of cultures, ages, and groups, from friends to large families. It is a lot of fun to sit at the traditional messob, which is a large, low basket that serves as a table with low stools to sit on. This is communal eating — all from the same large plate. You use your hands along with the injera to eat — no utensils (although you can have them if you ask).
We usually start and finish with shi (pronounced “shy”), which is an Ethiopian spiced tea. We order kitfo, which is made from lean beef, seasoned with purified and herbed butter sauce, and hot-spiced chili powder (mitmita). It is served raw, mild, or well done with home made cheese. Mostly it is eaten raw or what’s called “leb-leb,” which is barely cooked. Don’t be scared to try this, it is truly delicious. My other favorite here is yebeg fitfit, which is lamb on the bone, mostly shank, in a mild green pepper sauce mixed with injera. This is a very mild dish that even children can eat without worrying about it being too spicy.
Two dishes here can easily feed three people. While kitfo and yebeg fitfit are my two personal favorites, I have tried many other dishes here and have never been disappointed. There are certain times of the year when some Ethiopians are “fasting” (basically a vegan diet) and Zeni serves whole cooked fish that is delicious! There are also lots of vegetarian dishes to choose from that are equally as delicious as any meat dish on the menu. They also serve imported Ethiopian honey wine, beers, and bottled water. Be adventurous when ordering! The staff is very good at explaining the dishes to customers.
Zeni is a wonderful experience, because you are using so many of your senses. You use your hands to eat. The food on the platter is like an artist’s palette, beautifully distinct and vivid. The smells are outstanding. The spices are other-worldly, and the decor transports you to another country. It is definitely an experience to remember. It’s also a great place for groups of people, because it is family-style dining. This is an eating adventure not to be missed. The food is consistently delicious each and every time.
Occupation: Recruiting Manager
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Acquerello
Reviewed Zeni Ethiopian Restaurant: Wednesday, November 12, 2008
(I should caveat this review by saying that my experience with Ethiopian food is limited and that, in the small handful of times I have tried it, I didn’t enjoy the flavors or preparations very much. I also simply do not like injera, which is the foundation upon which the Ethiopian cuisine is built. I feel I judged Zeni as fairly as possible given this limitation, but want to reassure readers that I do not intend to negatively criticize any establishment as a result of my own personal hesitation with the cuisine.)
Zeni Ethiopian restaurant is located in a strip mall in San Jose. Strip malls are about as inviting as Siberia when it comes to considering a nice night out.
Having said this, Zeni does a good job with making you feel like you have been transported to another place. By covering the windows with tactful curtains and filling every visual nook and cranny of the establishment with what appears to be genuine Ethiopian craftsmanship and furniture, they achieve a fairly non-sterile and warm environment in which to dine. I recommend sitting in the back, which is full of round wooden tables and handmade chairs with tapestries and various art hanging on the walls. I found this to be more inviting than the front part of the restaurant. I would like to see carpet on the floor and dimmer lighting to make the entire establishment even more welcoming.
The service at Zeni was exactly right. I was greeted as soon as I entered from across the room, which says to me that the person who greeted me cared enough to make sure I was not waiting and staring at the ceiling for someone to come over. A minute or two later, I had a cozy seat in the back. From this point forward, my waitress was attentive without being intrusive and was helpful in recommending favorite dishes and traditional dishes.
I ended up having a sambussa to start with, followed by a main course of two entrées: lamb and then chickpeas. For those who do not know, Ethiopian food is most traditionally served on a large round dish on a thin piece of injera, or unleavened bread, that covers the whole plate. The entrée dishes are then poured on the injera, and diners pull off pieces of more injera on the side to dip and scoop up the entrees.
The sambussa was perfect. Flaky crust with a lot of flavor – not an easy thing to do with just a pastry dough. Inside, the lentils were cooked perfectly and with great flavor. Just pastry and lentils, and it tasted delicious, a rare thing, but Zeni pulled it off.
For the entrées, I had ye-beg tibs (lamb) and shuro wot (chickpeas). The portions are sizeable, as they often are with Ethiopian food. The chickpeas were absolutely the hit for me — creamy, well flavored, and just spicy enough. The lamb was just ok, not great. I would like to have seen a better cut of lamb — you could taste that it was not the best, and it affected the dish’s overall success. The salad that is served as part of entrée courses was fresh, and the vegetables in it were of good quality.
For dessert, I had a piece of baklava. I’ve eaten a lot of baklava in my life, and this was up there with the best of them. The chef at Zeni clearly has a way with pastry because, between the sambussa and the baklava, there is evidence of a culinary gift.
Finally, the beverages I tried were the honey wine and an African beer called Harar. The beer was surprisingly tasteful. Often, a lot of beers made in traditionally non-beer-drinking countries can be bland and half-baked. Harar was not this way at all. The honey wine was also unique. Somewhere between a Middle Eastern wine and a Chardonnay, it struck the right tone on the tongue.
The price was more than fair and the service-with-a-smile made this a successful journey for me.
(To reiterate my comment from above: I have limited experience with Ethiopian food and, in all honestly, do not care for it all that much. I would not return to Zeni for this reason, but would not disparage the establishment based purely on my own personal dislike of the country’s cuisine. I think that those who enjoy Ethiopian food would find Zeni authentic and properly-prepared.)
Occupation: Marketing Engineer
Favorite Restaurant: Quinn’s Lighthouse Restaurant & Pub
Reviewed Zeni Ethiopian Restaurant: Saturday, November 22, 2008
Portion size: The food is served family style on a shared plate with bread to pick up and eat the food. Our party of four ordered four entrees, and we were all stuffed by the end of the meal. Many other tables were observed taking away doggie bags, so the portions are more than adequate.
Quality of food: The food was delicious. The blend of spices was exquisite. Some of the beef dishes were a little overcooked, but everything else was perfect.
Service: The service was poor. They may not have had adequate staffing for a busy Saturday night. The time between when we sat down at the table until we were served food was one hour. When we finished the meal, it was 1/2 hour until we got the check and got the credit card run. The waitstaff, however, was very friendly.
Décor and atmosphere: The décor was excellent, even down to the details of the ceiling lighting having designs on the screens. We sat in the room that was more traditionally Ethiopian, so that was an adventure. It consisted of low chairs/stools and a wicker basket that held the communal food plate. A note of caution on that room, some of the seats do not have backs, which might be difficult for some people, and there was a complaint of not being able to rest your arms on the table. There is regular American seating for those who prefer that option.
Bang for buck: Excellent! We were able to have drinks and full meals and get out for less than $20/person.
Comfort: I was comfortable sitting in the low stool and eating from the traditional Ethiopian eating table. For those who aren’t there are standard American tables and chairs.
Wine service: The wine selection is limited and they were out of Ethiopian wines the night I visited.
Noise level: We were able to comfortably hear each other at the table, and there was live music that night. The music added to the ambiance, but was not so loud that we could not hear each other.
Wait for table: This is an area where Zeni needs improvement. They do not take reservations on weekends. Calling ahead I was told to come between 6pm and 7pm. We arrived at 7pm, and it took ten minutes to track someone down to take our name for a table. We were told it would be 20 minutes for the table, but it was an hour.
Food arrival speed: It was another hour until we got our food. We were seated for 15 minutes before the waitress came to take our order. It was another 20 minutes before we received out drinks, including water for the table. It was exactly one hour since we were seated before we got our appetizer. The main course came shortly after that.
The restaurant is in a strip mall, so parking was easy and we felt safe in the neighborhood.
The English translations of the food were somewhat off. I choose the vegetarian dish, kik alitcha, which is described as “split yellow piece” made with onion, garlic, ginger, and turmeric. When the waitress came I asked “what is it a yellow piece of?” It turns out it is yellow peas. As it turned out, this was the tastiest dish we ordered.
Unless they start to take reservations, I would not be inclined to go back. Although the food was delicious, it was an hour drive and then two hours for food. It did make me want to try other Ethiopian restaurants, though.