The signage outside Mesob Ethiopian Restaurant proclaims "Rated #1 Among 16 Ethiopian Restaurants," which sounds impressive until you realize that Seattle has only eight Ethiopian restaurants, and they don't mention who's done the rating.
The dining room at Mesob is like a grungy French existentialist designer's satire of an Ethiopian restaurant dining room. The dingy white walls are covered with unframed Ethiopian travel posters and warnings from the liquor control board about drinking and pregnancy. The room is lit by four buzzing and bare fluorescent bulbs, mounted to an acoustical tile ceiling that's a foot too low. The chairs are entirely mismatched, the linoleum floor... I won't say it's filthy, I'll say it's dingy. And, invariably, the dining room is entirely empty. No waiters, no hosts, no diners, no music. All life has been sucked from this room. Had there been a lesbian and an ingénue, it would have been a production of No Exit.
But take a stroll down an unmarked hallway, past the bathrooms, the utility sink, and the kitchen. Go down a one-foot ramp and into a softly lit dining room and bar buzzing with conversations in three different languages from four intimate booths, all decorated in a thatched-hut-and-bamboo motif with paintings of rural scenes on animal hides tacked to the burgundy walls. This business-in-the-front/party-in-the-rear architecture makes the diner feel like they've stumbled into a secret. Or an Ethiopian mullet.
The menu at Mesob takes a stance that seems to say, "You don't need to know (and really, you don't care) what's in these dishes. Order the combo." But what the menu actually says is impressive enough: Phrases like "let us now take this dish to the absolute limits of the universe, bound only by the heavens" replace mundane descriptions of ingredients. Dishes are described as "ecstatic" and simply "wow." And whatever you attempt to order first is invariably off the menu for the night. One night it was the Tomato Tomato (see below), one night it was the Te'j honey wine, one night it was the spiced tea. It's as if the dishes each get a night off per week, and you can't know the schedule.
Tomato Tomato, in addition to being the best name ever bestowed on an appetizer, is the perfect way to introduce your head and your stomach to the impending meal. A casual mix of fresh tomatoes, chopped onion, flat parsley, lemon juice, and olive oil, it's light, crisp, clean, and maintains a bite of head-clearing heat from the just-chopped onion that opens up the passages and preps the palate.
The combo platter offers up a variety of meat and vegetable dishes, arranged in small piles around a bed of injera bread. There's something about this typically Ethiopian way of presenting dishes, like colors on a painter's palette, that I've always loved; as the meal wears on, the edges of the piles mix together and, like red and blue creating green, the yebeg tibs and lentils mix to create a new, as-yet-unnamed mélange of a dish.
The tastes here are simple, clean, never overwrought. The vegetable dishes are sparingly spiced and, for the most part, unsauced. The simplicity of these vegetable dishes (and the mound of refreshingly light Ethiopian goat cheese) is countered by the meats, mostly stewed in heavier sauces. Here there are rich, complex, thick sauces and moist, falling-off-the-bone proteins to provide the gravity to the vegetables' levity. For all the strong desert spice in the saucing, however, the meats still played through—the chicken tasted like chicken, the lamb tasted like lamb (although I do have to say that on one visit the lamb, or yebeg tibs, was unfortunately tough).
Ethiopian restaurants as a rule seem to assume that you won't be able to eat anything for at least a day or two after your meal, and as a result I don't think I've ever even heard of an Ethiopian dessert. There's nothing left to do at the end of the meal but stare at the battleground of torn injera and sloppy sauces that was the communal serving platter. As the injera expands inside you like a compressed sponge toy, try pouring a thick Ethiopian coffee over the top of it and waiting for the food coma to settle over you like a warm blanket.