My friends enjoyed coming up with the titles for this review, so I cant just throw the rest away:
Zeni: You'll Love Getting Gored and Gored Again!
First Aid Kitfo
Tibs of the iceberg
Firfir? I barely know her!
Once a year two friends of mine, my boyfriend, and I rank our top favorite 20 restaurants in the whole world. Zeni ranked #5 on my list, #3 on my friend Brendans list, and #1 (for the second year in a row) on my friend Lilas list. (The boyfriend didnt include it though all weekend long Ive had to endure his raves about our most recent meal there.) Needless to say, its been our favorite Ethiopian restaurant in the Bay Area, nee the world since it opened a few years back. Weve entered many friends into our Cult of Zeni, and they beg to go there whenever theyre in town.
Two years ago I became obsessed with going to every Ethiopian restaurant in the East Bay. About two thirds of the way into my quest, I ended it abruptly because I was inevitably disappointed. No restaurant stacked up to Zeni, so why keep looking?
CRAMMING FOR YOUR ETHIOPIAN FINAL
Ordering is a little tricky at Zeni. My table had me order for the first time over the weekend and called it cramming for my Ethiopian final because I was trying to remember all the dishes and get their preparations correctly without looking at the menu. So, heres your cheat sheet on what to order:
First of all, DONT get the Gebeta, which is the name of their 5-item any dish combo. Its actually more expensive to go that route, no matter what 5 dishes you order.
All entrees are served with injera and salad. Zenis injera is good - slightly sour, and, like Darth Vader, a little on the dark side. (Ill be here all night!) Unfortunately, beyond the salad, the entrees dont come with free extra veggies as at some Ethiopian places. The entrees weve tried are listed below. Descriptions in quotes are what we call them. For some beef and lamb dishes theres a choice of fried or juicy, and Ive indicated our preferred preparation.
Gored Gored (lean cubed beef simmered in a blend of red pepper and herb butter, and served with awaze; $9). Tip: Order it COOKED, unless you like it raw or rare. Raves and more raves for this dish at our most recent visit. Cooked still means the meat is medium rare (sometimes rare), and it was wonderfully juicy and tender, in a great savory sauce.
Ye Doro Kitfo (tuna fish chicken - boneless, skinless ground chicken, seasoned with purifed and herb butter sauce and hot-spiced chili powder mitmita, and served with homemade cheese; $9). This dish is unique to Zeni, as Ive NEVER seen kitfo in chicken form, and dont worry its cooked (unlike the typical preparation of raw kitfo). I think the kitfo preparation is even better with chicken; in fact my friends tried Zenis kitfo with beef and didnt like it that much. Their chicken is so finely minced its flaky, and divine with a scoop of their house cheese.
Yemisir Wot (pureed split red lentils simmered in spicy, hot berbere sauce; $8). This is the best rendition of this dish Ive had. The lentils are wonderfully spicy and flavorful.
Ye Doro Tibs (boneless, skinless cubed chicken sautéed in a special blend of spice and braised in onions, tomato, green pepper, and purified butter; $9.50). This Ethiopian classic is executed nicely here with juicy chicken and flavorful vegetables.
Ye Bere Tibs (chunks of lean beef sautéed with onions, tomatoes, and green pepper and purified butter; $9). Tip: Order it JUICY. This dish has the same preparation as chicken tibs, and is also quite tasty.
Ye Timatim Fitfit (the bread salad - pieces of injera tossed in blended fresh tomato, onions, green pepper, and mixed with homemade dressing; $6.50). It may seem strange to use injera to pick up more injera, but this dish is heavenly. One friend of mine and I are obsessed with it, while the others dont see the point. (Fools!)
Kik Alitcha (split yellow peas with onion, garlic, ginger, and tumeric; $8). The boyfriend and another friend really love this dish, though I find it good though a little bland.
Vegetarian Combo (combo of Yemisir Wot the awesome red lentils, Kik Alitcha the aforementioned yellow lentils, Atakilt Wot boiled cabbage, carrots, and potatoes, Ye Gomen Wot (collar greens), and Ye Timatim Fitfit the bread salad; $9.50).
Sambussa (like a samosa; $2). This appetizer is good - not great - and we only order it if were hungry. Its like a samosa, in that the vegetables are inside a doughy shell and lightly deep fried, but the stuffing consists of lentils and onions.
YET MORE POSSIBILITIES (WRITTEN BY MY FRIENDS)
My friends have tried a few more dishes than me, and wrote to me with their assessments of Firfir, Ye Big Tibs, and Bozena Shiro.
Firfir (injera moistened with cubed beef simmered in bebere sauce; $9) Another dish we got a couple of times when we first started going to Zeni was the Firfir. It's a beef dish, and it's good stuff. Matthew and I liked it. The thing is, much like "bread salad", it is served all wrapped in a mess of injera. So it's kind of strange to be using torn of pieces of injera to scoop up injera-wrapped bread. As I said, though, I liked this dish--it's just kind of too much injera when taken with the
rest of the meal.
Ye Beg Tibs (lamb seasoned with onions, green pepper, tomato, and rosemary; $9.50) The Ye-Beg Tibs we've always ordered fried (though I wouldn't mind also
trying them juicy). Mark and I like this dish quite a bit, as does Sean
and my mom, so if someone enjoys lamb, I'd feel very safe recommending this.
Bozena Shiro (highly seasoned milled chick peas simmered in
berbere sauce with selected cubes of lean beef ; $9). I liked it a fair bit,
and remember Matthew liked it. It may have been too salty, though.
Zilzil tibs (strips of tender beef sautéed in purifed butter, seasoned with onions, green pepper, fresh rosemary; $9). This dish doesnt taste particularly Ethiopian with the addition of rosemary, but more importantly it doesnt have the flavor of the other beef dishes and is without a sauce. My friend Lila describes it as looking like beef fajitas. She says it was pretty good but not as good as any of the other dishes we get regularly. Maybe it was a little overcooked so the meat was a little dry.
BEVERAGES AND COFFEE CEREMONY
In addition to tej (everyone who orders it is quite fond of it though I havent tried it) and a full bar, Zeni offers an intriguing $25 Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony. It has to be ordered an hour in advance, and some friends tried to get it once but were unable. I believe it was because it was too close to closing time.
Zeni has a nice exotic feel with a bamboo covered bar and music area, and Ethiopian art and artifacts on the wall. As Ethopian restaurants go, I think its only second to Blue Nile, and might be tied with Café Colucci with regards to ambiance. There are often Ethiopian musicians on keyboards on the weekends. Zeni consists of two rooms. The room with the music area has traditional low tables and stools, and are on the uncomfortable side the chairs make for sore backs and theres nowhere to stretch your legs.
The service is always professional and fairly friendly. On Saturday nights, you can expect about a 45 minute wait for entrees (less on weeknights). On weekend nights, Id recommend getting a reservation especially with a large group.
And finally, one of my friend says, You also may or may not want to mention the busty Ethiopian waitstaff.
MY RANKINGS OF ETHIOPIAN RESTAURANTS IN THE BAY AREA
1)Zeni, San Jose
/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\(demarcation of entirely different echelon)
2)Blue Nile, Berkeley
5)Café Colucci, Oakland
8)Red Sea, Oakland
9)Asmara, Oakland ? (I cant remember where I ranked this before)
1320 Saratoga Ave. (at Payne)
San Jose, CA
Tues. Thurs.: 11:30 a.m. 10:00 p.m.
Fri.; 11:30 p.m. 11:00 p.m.
Sat.: Noon 11:00 p.m.
Sun.: Noon 10:00 p.m.