In the News

In short, lessons from Mom

Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; E03

Even by Ethiopian standards, the menu at Merkamo in Springfield is concise, with fewer than a dozen dishes altogether.

Co-owner Alex Habte Chere says small is what his mother, Mulatwa Benti, who is also the head chef here, preached when he and his brother, Yeti Yetinayet Habte, opened the Ethiopian dining room in September: “Keep it focused the first time,” advised Mom.

On the list is a single appetizer – a savory pastry stuffed with a choice of lentils or minced meat – plus the traditional doro wat (spicy simmered chicken) and a vegetarian sampler platter that is vivid with yellow and red lentils, jalapeno-spiked tomato salad, saffron-colored cabbage and soft green beans teamed with carrots. Ethiopia’s version of steak tartare is as spicy as you ask for it; any flames can be tempered with the chalky cottage cheese that comes with the dish. (Unfortunately, the injera that does double duty as utensil and accompaniment proves bland. Merkamo should reconsider its source.)

Painted in shades of milk and dark chocolate, the 60-seat storefront is stark. But I admire the shadow boxes, each set off with a light bulb in its center, as well as the smart Ethiopian art that punctuates the walls.

Merkamo is a tidy spot for beef sauteed with garlic and onions, and lamb tripe cooked in spiced butter. Visit Tuesdays through Thursdays between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. through February and you can take advantage of the newcomer’s early-bird special: $9.99 for any entree, plus a drink (even beer or wine).

Merkamo is a tribute to Chere’s mother, widely admired for her hospitality back in the family’s native Addis Ababa. In the Gurage language, the restaurateur explains, merkamo translates as “beautiful.”

7020 Commerce St., Springfield. 703-639-0144. Entrees, $10.99 to $14.95.