Ethiopian fare sings at Sheba Piano Lounge 

The Ethiopian menu on an e-mail invitation to a San Francisco Professional Food Society event at the Sheba Piano Lounge spoke to me.

I had passed Sheba’s lavender and chartreuse facade with pink neon-signage many times on the way to Yoshi’s, but never thought to eat there. One Monday, two of us dropped in.

At the doorway, a man wrapping presents on a baby grand piano asked if we were there for the farewell party. When we said no, he pointed to a  black-clad waitress who told us to choose any seat.

There were many possibilities: two lounge areas with luxurious arm chairs around low tables; a small dining room with stunning fabric-covered banquettes, polished wood tables and graceful Chinese chairs, and a long granite bar.

Sheba’s walls glowed in warm Venetian colors though one looked like an ancient stone wall — a convincing replica of the Church of St. George in Lalibela. World beat music — Egyptian, Portuguese, Moroccan — played infectiously.

We drank exotic, perfectly balanced cocktails ($9) made with aromatic Ethiopian bitters. These carefully conceived cocktails went brilliantly with a big plate of Ethiopian dishes, laid out on injera, the thin, spongy, sour Ethiopian bread.

We ate with our fingers, tearing off pieces of injera to scoop up the moist but contained mounds of food.

The vegetable sampler ($14.75), the foundation of any meal here, brings five different preparations that add up to a satisfying meal.

There were tender, spicy collard greens with onions; a mash of yellow split peas with green pepper; a red chile-tinted lentil puree; a stir fry of cabbage, carrots and onions with ginger; and two poufs of Western lettuce salad in a haunting vinaigrette infused with minty, musky Ethiopian oregano.

In the middle of this plate was our order of doro tibs ($14.50), a boneless chicken saute with onions, red peppers and a peppery housemade condiment called awaze. The whole canvas of flavors and colors coalesced,  creating a culinary tapestry as striking as the lush fabrics that surrounded us.

Layers of spice and scent make Ethiopian cooking so exciting. Berbere, a hand-ground mixture of sun-dried red chiles, sweet spices and fenugreek, goes into many dishes, as does spice-infused, clarified butter, called nit’re qibe,  which adds further complexity.

Chef-partner Netsanet Alemayehu told me that she brings all her spices directly from Ethiopia — in suitcases.

Most Ethiopians eat kitfo ($15) the famous Ethiopian steak tartare, for special occasions, but at Sheba you can order it off the menu with the caveat that it takes 15 minutes to hand cut the beef and mix it with berbere and spiced butter.

A perfumed spinach dip with capers called arangodi ($8) and deep-fried savory pastries filled with lentils or ground beef, called sambussa ($7), go with cocktails. 

As we were wiping our fingers, the farewell boy took the microphone and the present wrapper accompanied him expertly at the piano for a medley of romantic show tunes. He sang movingly with perfect pitch and professional timbre. The room applauded and whistled. We wished him luck on his move to New York on our way out.

His singing was but one of the surprises at Sheba, a sophisticated, charming, multifaceted eatery I wish I’d noticed three years ago.

Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

 

Sheba Piano Lounge

Location:
1419 Fillmore St. (at Ellis Street), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 440-7414; www.shebapianolounge.com
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Price range: $5 to $15
Recommended dishes: Spinach dip; sambussas; vegetarian sampler; doro tibs; kitfo
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Accepted

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Patricia Unterman

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