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RESTAURANTS | COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: ETHIOPIA

Meals by Genet boasts African stews, fish and flatbread, with a taste of Italy too.

December 18, 2002|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

Meals by Genet? Would this be based on recipes of a French existentialist thief/playwright? Intrigued, you stick your head in and discover a stylish little Ethiopian restaurant.

Not terribly surprising, since we are in Little Addis Ababa -- the block of Fairfax Avenue south of Olympic Boulevard full of restaurants serving spicy, buttery Ethiopian stews on a flatbread that is both plate and eating utensil.

The name actually refers to Genet Agonafer's catering business, Meals by Genet. Agonafer originally took this location to have a professional kitchen but has opened it as a restaurant.

It's a smallish storefront, but it boasts a bar, and the decor is spare and elegant. The chairs have narrow ladder backs; there are pieces of African art on the walls.

Agonafer specializes in catering for film shoots, and she's definitely tuned in to Hollywood. One day I was sitting in her restaurant, minding my business and working through an order of yebere siga tibs, when a guy came in and asked Agonafer whether his film could shoot a scene there. Not a bit surprised, she merely insisted on knowing the name of the production before she would say yes or no.

The menu is about equally divided between Ethiopian and European dishes, the latter mostly being Italian (a legacy of Italy's 1935-41 rule of Ethiopia). Some other Ethiopian restaurants have a pasta or two, but Agonafer is a versatile cook and her Italian dishes are not mere pasta in marinara sauce. She serves a beautifully grilled salmon topped with basil and chopped tomatoes along with some linguine in a lively tomato cream sauce. She's likely to protest if you order Ethiopian side dishes along with it on the grounds that they don't go together, but she volunteers a little cup of ground Ethiopian chiles, surprisingly good with this dish.

Even on the Ethiopian side of the menu, everything is a la carte; unlike other Ethiopian places around town, Meals by Genet doesn't automatically give you a couple of vegetable sides with your entree. For $10 you can add a big selection of them (which can also serve as a vegetarian dinner by itself). They include collards, a green salad with bits of hot pepper in it, a jalapeno stuffed with tomatoes, two kinds of garbanzo puree, a sunflower seed puree, lentils dosed with horseradish-like Ethiopian mustard and a spicy mush of tomatoes and tangy Ethiopian flatbread.

With every Ethiopian entree you do get that crepe-like bread, injera, dark with teff, the iron-rich grain of the Ethiopian highlands. The food is served on a big injera and you get all the injeras you need for tearing off swatches to pick up the food.

Several of the best-known Ethiopian dishes are available, including doro wat, the national stew of chicken with ground red chiles. Agonafer's version, which she says takes two days to make, has a very dense, sweetish sauce with a bit of spiciness. It comes with the traditional addition of a hard-boiled egg.

Kitfo, the dish of raw chopped beef mixed with Ethiopian spiced butter, is served slightly warmed here, at least in cold weather. It has a handsome light ruby color and admirable balance, not ostentatiously buttery or spicy.

Yebere siga tibs is basically a big pile of very tender steak chunks, sauteed in Ethiopian butter, with an elusive, poetic aroma of cardamom and other spices. It comes with a little pot of awaze, which is simply a puree of quite hot chiles.

There's a slightly tart lamb stew, yebeg siga alitcha, flavored with a mixture of spices in which you can detect ginger as well as cardamom and hot chile. The meat, which has plenty of the gamy tang lamb lovers enjoy, is partly mixed with bits of injera to soak up the juices.

Toward the end of the list of Ethiopian dishes there's a surprise: trout. Well, if you live in the Ethiopian highlands, it's freshwater fish you eat, not red snapper.

Agonafer's way of cooking trout is to deep-fry the whole fish, much the way people deep-fry a whole turkey. It's quite successful, the skin crisp and golden brown, the flesh moist and flavorful.

Appetizers aren't part of the Ethiopian tradition, and there aren't any here. Nor is dessert traditional. If you really feel the need for dessert, though -- you're already getting a lot of food if your table has ordered the vegetable side dishes -- the choices are vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce or cheesecake. I'm just saying, they're there if you insist.

*

Meals by Genet

Location: 1053 S. Fairfax Ave., L.A., (323) 938-9304

Price: Entrees, $6 to $14, Ethiopian side dishes, $10, desserts, $3 to $4

Best dishes: Ethiopian salads (vegetarian combination), yebere siga tibs, yebeg siga alitcha, kitfo, doro wat, trout, grilled salmon

Facts: Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; closed Monday and Tuesday. Beer and wine. Parking lot in rear. All major cards.

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