It was 8:15 on a Thursday evening and we were sitting at a large woven basket, eating food off a metal pan with our fingers and joking and laughing with our server, Joi. Around us were colorful curtains, lively music and other people eating, laughing and drinking Ethiopian honey wine (Tej) and Ethiopian beer (Bedele) while the owner, Yigletu Debebe, mingled and pleasantly told us of the restaurant’s Feb. 14 opening and his former life as a school administrator at Martin Luther King High School.
Milwaukee, please welcome the Ethiopian Cottage Restaurant, 1824 N. Farwell Ave., a wonderful new addition to our dining scene.
Ethiopian food is traditionally served on Injera, a flatbread comprised of Teff, a tiny cereal grain which has been the staple food of Ethiopia since sometime around 4000 B.C. To the American diner, Injera will be reminiscent of an unleavened, bubbly buckwheat/sourdough pancake. The Injera acts as your plate, fork, knife and spoon, and dishes are served collectively on one or two large pieces of the Injera as well.
So diners here will be best served to bring a dining companion they really like, as you quite literally eat with your fingers pinched around the Injera, and, in Ethiopian cultures, it is shown as a sign of respect and welcoming to actually feed your guest by scooping some of your entrée items with the Injera and putting it to his or her mouth. As a result, eating at the Ethiopian Cottage Restaurant is an intimate experience, and one that we found to be enjoyable, both from a cultural education perspective and quite simply from just eating really great food with interesting textures and flavors.
The menu here smartly begins by defining all the terms on the menu and also giving basic instructions for use of your Injera (forks, knives, and spoons can be provided upon request).
Dishes here are based in three forms, Fitfit salads, which combine vegetables with seasoned Injera, Wat, which is a spiced stew, and Tibs which is a sautéed blend of lamb, beef, chicken, or vegetables with onions and spices. Our favorite items were the Key Wat and Alicha Wat with Beef ($12.99), which were the spicy and mild stew forms of beef, and the Doro Wat (spicy chicken in a berbere sauce-red peppers, garlic, and other Ethiopian spices, served with a hard-boiled egg) Ybeg Alicha, mild cubed bone-in lamb that was tenderly cooked in a mild sauce, and Atkilt Wat, a combination of stewed carrots, potatoes, vegetables, and onions ($16 for one person, or $30 for two).
We were not as happy with the Ybeg Tibs ($10.99), which was sautéed but not to the point of delightful tenderness that the Wat items carried. Each of these items may be ordered stand alone or in one of the cottages combination plates for one or two, and come with lentils and chickpeas.
We early on also developed a love for the Ethiopian tomato salad ($5.50), a mixture of diced jalapenos, chunks of tomatoes, and onions and Ethiopian spices which were even more delightful when combined with any of the meat or vegetable items on our Injera. And that is one of the beauties of this style of cuisine, because you cannot only sample your dishes as well as those of your companions, the plating and eating techniques nearly beg one to intermingle the different components of the foods, allowing you an unlimited combination of textures and flavors.
While some may be intimidated by the intimacy of sharing everything with your fingers, the Ethiopian Cottage takes great strides to assuage any fear, offering an authentic dining experience that can be customized as the diners see fit.
There is no need to eat out of the Moseb basket-table if you don’t feel comfortable, as they offer normal tables and chairs for the less adventurous, as well as knives, forks and individual plates, but if you give it the chance, Ethiopian Cottage invites you to come in and give a whole new intimacy and warmth to your dining experience.
Amy L. Schubert is a 15-year veteran of the hospitality industry and has worked in every aspect of bar and restaurant operations. A graduate of Marquette University (B.A.-Writing Intensive English, 1997) and UW-Milwaukee (M.A.-Rhetoric, Composition, and Professional Writing, 2001), Amy still occasionally moonlights as a guest bartender and she mixes a mean martini.
The restaurant business seems to be in Amy’s blood, and she prides herself in researching and experimenting with culinary combinations and cooking techniques in her own kitchen as well as in friends’ restaurants. Both she and her husband, Scott, are avid cooks and “wine heads,” and love to entertain friends, family and neighbors as frequently as possible.
Amy and Scott live with their boys, Alex and Nick, in Bay View, where they are all very active in the community. Amy finds great pleasure in sharing her knowledge and passions for food and writing in her contributions to OnMilwaukee.com.