Restaurant review: Bringing Ethiopian cooking to SoMa with a family atmosphere and robust seasoning
DINE Many of the city's Ethiopian restaurants are to be found in the Western Addition (on or near Divisadero Street) and in the Inner Sunset, so to find one, Moya, blooming in SoMa is an unexpected pleasure. The rush of Internet Age money into the neighborhoods south of Market Street in recent years has been a fast-rising tide that can be said to have lifted all boats only if by boats we mean yachts. But if by boats we mean boats, then some swamping has occurred. The area isn't yet devoid of modest, high-value restaurants, but the trend has bent strongly in the direction of pricey new places, from Prospect in the east to Bar Agricole in the once-forlorn west.
The foods of Ethiopia seem a little underappreciated on these shores. The cooking is as gratifyingly spiced as that from the other side of the Indian Ocean. But while Indian cuisine has found a sort of vogue here, perhaps because of the influx of so many software engineers, Ethiopian cuisine has not.
Yet neglect isn't always and entirely a bad thing. It can help preserve a certain integrity and authenticity. At Moya (which opened last summer), the look is big-city modern, with high ceilings, a floor handsomely laid with rough tiles the color of sandstone, and walls washed with a butter color. The place looks fresh and clean, and the kitchen is half out in the open, which lends a reassuring transparency to things. There is nothing quite like being able to see the people who make your food actually making it.
But at heart, it's very much a mom-is-cooking operation. The ayb, a kind of cottage cheese, is house-made according to a family recipe. You can order the cheese as a side, for $4, and it's also served with the kitfo ($14), a kind of spicy, tataki-ized steak tartare — steak tartake? More on the beef in a moment, but as for the cheese: it was more creamy than chunky, almost like a relation of mascarpone but with a fresh sourness that led me to ask our server whether lemon juice had been substituted for rennet as the curdling agent. The answer was indefinite, which might mean I hadn't put the question clearly or had stumbled on a trade secret. But the cheese did strongly remind me of a simple fresh white cheese I've sometimes made myself (using lemon juice squeezed into scalded milk) for the Indian spinach dish saag paneer.
The other lovely element of sourness in the food involves injera, the bread (made from a grain called teff,) that resembles a cross between sponge cake and sourdough. You could make a savory bûche de Noël from it. At Moya. as at all the Ethiopian and Eritrean places I've been to, injera is ubiquitous, whether laid out as a kind of mat for other items to rest on; rolled up like fresh lavash and set beside a rounded cone of green lentils — azifa ($5) — strongly seasoned with red onions, garlic, lemon, chilis, and olive oil or torn up and tossed with tomatoes, green peppers, onions, and a garlicky vinaigrette for ye timatim fit fit ($4), a sort of east African panzanella.
The kitchen's seasoning hand is a robust one, whether the animating ingredient is garlic (the ye timatim fit fit should come with a whole coffee bean or two for each diner, to chew away garlic breath, which becomes particularly lethal the morning after), or hot pepper. We were consulted on how hot we wanted the kitfo and ye doro tibs ($12), chunks of boneless chicken sautéed in clarified butter with berberé, (the traditional Ethiopian chili powder), onions, garlic, tomato, and herbs. When told that hot was quite hot, we said medium and hoped for the best. But medium turned out to be what most places would call hot. I like spicy food, and I found the tingling afterglow of the berberé to be a distinct pleasure. But mild wouldn't be a bad default choice for those in doubt.