Best Ethiopian Restaurant
in Silicon Valley
by Metro - 2008
Best Ethiopian Restaurant
in Silicon Valley
by Metro - 2007
click on the links below
to read reviews
1. METRO ACTIVE -
Dec 21, 2004
Zeni Philosophy -
By Stett Holbrook
2. THE MERCURY NEWS - Mar 28, 2004
Spicy Ethiopian fare. -
Zeni Philosophy - Metro Active - Dec 21, 2004
CBS Channel 5 featured Zeni Restaurant on Oct 21, 2005 on the "Eye on The Bay" , visit now.
Ethiopian restaurant celebrates communal pleasures of eating
By Stett Holbrook
IT'S IRONIC that Ethiopia, a country many Americans associate with poverty and bloated bellies, has given us one of the world's most generous and satisfying cuisines. At Ethiopian restaurants, everyone eats off the same platter, a practice that, I think, reinforces the simple pleasure of eating good food in the company of friends and family.
Zeni Ethiopian Restaurant, named after co-owner and chef Zeni Gebremariam, tops my list of Bay Area Ethiopian restaurants. Aside from the fine food, part of the pleasure of eating here is the bonhomie that pervades the meal. Abe Feki, Gebremariam's husband and co-owner, says communal dining in Ethiopia helps stretch sometimes meager food stocks and ensures everyone gets something to eat. It's also a powerful way to maintain family bonds, he says.
Zeni is usually filled with Ethiopian expats and a mix of ethnically diverse diners who know they've found something good. A palm-thatched bar serves surprisingly potable Ethiopian wine as well as beer and cocktails. The dining room is divided in two. On one side is the typical, Western-style table-and-chair setup. It's pleasant enough, but through an archway is an exotically furnished room that makes the other side look black and white in comparison. Here, you sit on low stools or fur-covered chairs around a colorful, straw basket table called a mesob.
Central to the Ethiopian food is injera, a spongy, pancakelike bread. Injera is tangy unleavened bread made from teff, an ancient Ethiopian grain. You scoop up your food with a piece of the bread, using it in place of utensils. It also lines the bottom of platters, absorbing juices and bits of food so that nothing is wasted. But be careful how much injera you eat. It has a sneaky way of expanding in your stomach, taking you from pleasantly satiated to painfully full in a few minutes.
The vegetarian ($9) and meat combinations ($11) offer a great introduction to Ethiopian food. The vegetarian sampler includes yewmir wot, puréed, dal-like red lentils simmered in a rich berberé sauce. Berberé is the signature seasoning in Ethiopian food. Like curry, it combines about a dozen spices including clove, cinnamon, paprika, cumin, red chiles, fenugreek and black pepper. Combined with clarified butter, as it is in many dishes, it produces a complex, highly aromatic, spicy seasoning that's wonderfully addictive. I loved the kik alicha, split yellow peas puréed with onion, garlic, ginger and turmeric. And don't miss the unassuming but excellent gomen wot, sautéed collard greens.
From the meat combo, the beef kifto is the most unique. Described as Ethiopian steak tartare, the dish is available raw, medium or well done. We went for medium and got a buttery mound of lean ground beef enlivened with mitmita, a mild chile powder. For a full berberé experience, kei wot delivers chunks of lean beef simmered in the dark-red spice mixture and clarified butter. Berberé-seasoned food isn't hot out of the gate but smolders and slowly grows in intensity. Sprinkling a little lybe on your food, fresh house-made cow's milk cheese, can help temper the heat. The simple but good salad served with most dishes offers a cooling counterpoint as well.
While I usually avoid dishes made with chicken breast because they're so often too dry, ye doro tibs ($9.50) did me right. The dish is a sultry braise of chicken chunks with onions, tomatoes, jalapeños and clarified butter.
For the complete Ethiopian dining experience, we called ahead to order the traditional coffee ceremony ($25). Ethiopia, not Juan Valdez's Colombia, is the birthplace of coffee, and the beverage plays a special role in Ethiopian culture and is always consumed with friends and neighbors, never alone.
For the tableside ceremony, a server roasts green coffee beans in a skillet and burns a pleasing, pine tar-scented incense. The coffee is then ground and poured from a clay pot into small cups and served with popcorn, a traditional accompaniment.
If I have one gripe about Zeni, it's the service. The waitresses are uniformly polite but rather mute. I expected a narration to accompany the coffee ceremony, but instead we just got coffee and smiles. The food and traditions of Ethiopia are sure to be new to many, and it would be helpful to hear more about them. But I quibble. Sitting around the mesob with friends and lingering over coffee makes it easy to enjoy yourself and the pleasures of good food and drink.
Zeni Ethiopian Restaurant
Address: 1320 Saratoga Ave., San Jose
Hours: 11:30am-10pm Tue-Thu, 11:30am-11pm Fri, noon-11pm Sat, noon-10pm Sun
THE MERCURY NEWS
San Jose, CA
Spicy Ethiopian fare
OFF-THE-BEATEN-PATH CUISINE HAS APPEAL FOR ALMOST EVERYONE
Sunday, Mar 28, 2004
When members of the Bay Area Vegetarians organization were looking for a South Bay restaurant to hold their monthly meeting, they picked Zeni Ethiopian.
When Lynbrook High School in San Jose sent students to visit food writer Carolyn Jung, students whose normal lunch is fast food, we picked Zeni.
And when a young couple needed a dinner out, they picked Zeni, where they sat on stools close to the floor with their baby close at hand.
Zeni was a huge success in all cases, since it is one of the South Bay's most inviting Ethiopian restaurants.
An estimated 25,000 people of Ethiopian descent live in Santa Clara County, with businesses concentrated along San Jose's West San Carlos Street. That is where Zeni Gebremariam founded Gojo restaurant eight years ago. Her lush, vibrant cooking built up such a following that when she moved to a larger space, she gave the place her own name.
In May, Zeni will celebrate its second year at the Albertsons Center on Saratoga Avenue, where there is plenty of parking. Gebremariam and her husband, Abe Feki, took over tiny Karamara Cafe from the previous Ethiopian owner and expanded into the next store. You can still eat Western-style in the front room, with bistro chairs at cloth-covered tables and eye-catching folk art on the walls. But through hand-painted arches is the opportunity to eat like an Ethiopian family, on low stools around a small, colorfully woven basket table.
Service features the same dramatic flair no matter where you sit. A large platter loaded with food is delivered to your table in a high-pitched, woven top hat. It is removed to release amazing aromas.
Ethiopian foods employ one of the world's largest varieties of herbs and spices, including ginger, coriander, cumin, clove, fenugreek, mustard, dill, red pepper, cardamom and turmeric. Some are hot, but you taste more than heat. Flavors emerge as you eat.
Sambusas ($2 each) are a safe place to start. These are flaky vegetarian pastries, stuffed with a lively mix of whole and mashed brown lentils, onions and clarified butter. They're delicious, but big enough for two as an appetizer.
Zeni's menu, several laminated pages in the same hourglass shape as the Ethiopian table and its serving cover, may require a lot of flipping back and forth. The categories are specialties, beef, poultry, lamb, combinations, eggs and vegetarian entrees. Most dishes are sketchily described, so take a leap of faith or get a combination plate.
Each entree, combination or not, comes with all-you-can-eat injera, the house-made flat bread. Injera is made from the iron-rich Ethiopian cereal grain teff. It functions like a thick, spongy pancake and has a slightly fermented taste, but even so, our teenage tasters liked it. One layer lies on the bottom of the platter to soak in the various juices of the food. The rest comes in a basket, rolled up like thick napkins. In either spot, you tear it apart with your fingers.
Entrees also come with a good helping of fresh green salad, with tomatoes, drizzled simply in lemon and oil. If you've never eaten salad with your hands, this is the place to try.
The meat combination ($11) comes with chicken, lamb and beef and is a good way to survey Zeni's sauces. A chicken thigh or drumstick is simmered in a dark, rich sauce that looks like a Mexican mole and tingles your tongue with red pepper, garlic and ginger. (When you see the word wot, it means stew. A wot with kei, red pepper, will be hotter than a wot with alitcha, green pepper.) Lamb bones are cooked in the milder green pepper sauce, and tossed with pieces of injera just before serving. Beef is a finely chopped, spicy red berbere stew with butter, garlic and onion but dominated by turmeric. You will welcome the next-door mound of Ethiopian cheese, made from buttermilk but resembling a lemon-scented ricotta.
The vegetarian combination ($9) comes with a pre-tossed bread salad, fancied slightly with crisp green peppers. It also comes with cheese and four stews: Mild split yellow peas are mashed in ginger and turmeric; boiled cabbage is dressed up with carrots, potatoes, onions and garlic; chopped collard greens get their own slow bath in onions and herbs. And spicy berbere sauce slathers red lentils.
Besides the combination, there are five other vegetarian entrees, and scrambled eggs with tomatoes.
Our high school testers, brand-new to Ethiopian food, liked most of the vegetarian plate and the mild chicken dish called ye doro tibs ($9.50). These are nuggets of boneless, skinless chicken meat sauteed in tomatoes, green pepper and clarified butter. Tibs also can be ordered spicy.
But for the Zeni specialty yebeg kikil ($9), a lamb stew, you have to really like turmeric. And pieces of meat that the sauce has turned very green.
The front room is dominated by the thatched-roof bar, which leads to the kitchen and the full menu of high-end spirits like Grey Goose vodka. Feki says a shot of liquor with spicy Ethiopian foods is a traditional digestive. The soothing honey wine called tej ($4 a glass, $6 a carafe) serves the same purpose. Zeni serves Enat Tej brewed in Oakland, and a couple of other Ethiopian wines and beer.
Tea comes to the table in a glass mug, looking very weak. It's just the starter, hot water mixed with tea spices from the Oakland importer. Then you put in a tea bag, and a whole class of spices headed by cloves comes up.
Zeni bathes you in gentle benevolence, from quiet service to the leather box that holds your check. The inside lid reads: ``We are honored to have you here.'
'Restaurant guidebooks for American cities, and even the diverse Bay Area, rarely have a listing for Ethiopian. They should.
Zeni Ethiopian 1320 Saratoga Ave. at Payne Avenue, San Jose. (408) 615-8282
***The Dish: Aromatic Ethiopian food at its most inviting. At Western tables or Ethiopian stools, you eat with your hands.
Price range: Appetizers $2-$3. Entrees $6-$11.50. Corkage $7.
Details: Full bar. Ethiopian coffee ceremony available.
Pluses: Great variety of vegetarian dishes. Levels of spices.
Minuses: Too easy to fill up on bread. Servers not free with explanations.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays. Noon-11 p.m. Saturday. Noon-10 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays.
Restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously. The Mercury News pays for all meals.
Contact Sheila Himmel at email@example.com or (408) 920-5926. Fax (408) 271-3786.
Price range: $6-$11