Home & Garden Columns
With all the Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants in Berkeley and Oakland, it took me a while to get around to Finfine. My loss.
My dining companion and I went there on a tip from a dental hygienist with Ethiopian roots. Commenting on another well-regarded venue, she said that was mainly where her fellow expats went to hang out and drink coffee, although the food was passable. For Ethiopian cuisine with the freshest ingredients, she recommended Finfine.
Well, she was right. After a couple of visits, I’m prepared to put this place, downstairs in The Village at Telegraph and Blake, at or near the top of the local rankings. The ingredients are indeed fresh, and handled with a light touch, a refinement, that’s exceptional. And you’ll find dishes that go well beyond the Horn-of-Africa standards.
On our first foray, we were accompanied by a vegetarian (and occasionally piscivorous) friend. One of the things I’ve always liked about Ethiopian restaurants is that they’re great places to take visiting vegetarians.
The Coptic Church to which most Amharic- and Tigre-speaking Ethiopians belong has 208 meatless days on its calendar. Of necessity, Coptic Ethiopians developed a rich and varied vegetarian cuisine, based on several kinds of lentils, chickpeas, and collard greens, and augmented in the last few centuries by potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers. There’s even a “mock meat” tradition, with chickpea flour molded into fish shapes and fried.
So we ordered the vegetarian combination, and a sea-bass dish, goord-asa tibs, that sounded promising. Finfine’s menu is unusual for its depth in fish. As the restaurant’s helpful web site explains, anything called “tibs” is going to be stir-fried; “wat” denotes a stew. And both the fish and vegetables were splendid. I could have used more collards, but that’s just me. The green beans were just on the tender side of crunchy; the lentils were subtly seasoned.
“The ingredients aren’t cooked down as much as in other places,” our friend said appreciatively. The bass—a generous serving—had been marinated, then sautéed with onions and peppers; it was tangy and succulent.
In both fish and vegetables, the spices—including the traditionally popular chilicentric mix called berbere—had been used with a light hand. I’ve had Ethiopian fare that would cauterize the taste buds; at Finfine, the seasoning complemented but didn’t overwhelm the other flavors.
For anyone new to the whole concept of Ethiopian food, I should explain injera. It’s a spongy flatbread that serves as both plate and utensil; you tear off a piece, wrap it around a morsel, and pop it into your mouth, or your companion’s mouth (a custom called goorsha).
Injera is made from tef (Eragrostis tef), a grain endemic to the Ethiopian highlands, which may have been one of several parts of the world where people independently came up with the idea of agriculture. Tef seeds are pinhead-sized and the seed heads are prone to shattering, so harvesting the stuff is labor-intensive. But it’s high in iron, resistant to disease and pests, and doesn’t require irrigation—virtues that have kept it in cultivation for millennia.
Injera typically arrives at the table rolled up and stacked in a basket; it looks rather like a stash of Ace bandages. Tastes much better, though. And here’s a culinary secret known to (and needed by) few: it doesn’t stick to orthodontic braces. There is culinary salvation for adolescents!
With an Ethiopian-brewed Hakim Stout—a wonderfully smoky, substantial beer—the fish-and-vegetable meal was a success. There was an odd moment when our waiter, asked about the creamy white cheese that had come with the assortment, tried to convince us it wasn’t cheese at all, but processed chickpeas.
He may have assumed we were upset about dairy products mingling with our vegetables, although I don’t know how he would have accounted for the fish. Or maybe the kitchen had just subbed the cheese for the chickpeas—we’d devoured it all by the time we asked. But it was all satisfying, and we decided to return with a couple of omnivores and try the meat dishes.
Mad cow phobia notwithstanding, all four of us agreed to sample the kitfo, Ethiopia’s answer to steak tartare: raw minced beef mixed with niter kebbe—clarified butter spiced with cardamom, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, onion and garlic—and mit’mit’a, a blend of chilies. (Finfine will cook the beef on request.)
As with the sea bass, there was almost too much to finish. The kitfo was complicated—with a dominant note of cardamom and a lively fresh tone from the ginger, but much else going on—and, unlike others I’ve had, not overpoweringly hot. The cheese, ayib, made a nice foil for the richness.
Our other meat entrée, ye-beg wat, was more of a mixed bag: chunks of lamb in a thick berbere-laden sauce like a good Oaxacan mole. Warning: all the chunks contained bits of neckbone, and dealing with the bones and the injera required considerable juggling; not to mention winding up with this little pyramid of bones that you don’t want to put back on the injera.
We repeated the goord-asa tibs, the vegetarian combination, and the Hakim Stout, and one of us ordered a glass of tej, Ethiopian honey wine. Another pleasant surprise: light, fruity but not cloying, reminiscent of a really good mead (and yes, such a thing exists, at least in the subculture of home brewing).
So I have to give proper credit to our tipster: this place is a cut above the competition, and I speak from a lot of injera mileage.
It’s a pleasant spot, with traditional art and musical instruments on the walls, and wonderfully idiosyncratic Ethiopian pop music on the sound system (Did anyone else catch Aster Aweke at the late lamented Festival at the Lake?)
Entrees top out at $12.95; a glass of tej is $4.50, as is the beer. There are lots of intriguing menu options we didn’t get to, including chicken dishes and a fish version of kitfo. Whether you’re new to Ethiopian foodways or an old hand, Finfine—named for a spring of legendary purity near Addis Ababa—is a worthy exponent of an ancient and distinctive culinary tradition.
Open 5-10 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, noon-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 5-10 p.m. Monday. Closed Tuesday. Credit cards accepted. 2556 Telegraph Ave., 883-0167, www.finfine.com.