Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Amazing Legume and Vegetable Master (and Home of the Most Sublime Stewed Cabbage (Yes, Cabbage)) - Rahel Ethiopian Cuisine

Ah, the Vegetable. This 9 letter V-word is almost as shunned as the 5 letter and 10 letter V-words related to it. Usually an afterthought on most menus in the U.S., or the butt end of some culinary joke, Vegetables have sadly been looked down upon and treated with disdain for far too long. Not that this negativity isn't deserved: Try a "Side of Vegetables" at most mainstream restaurants and be prepared to bite into utterly bland, boring, overcooked or undercooked chunks of what used to be Vegetables. But imagine a restaurant where the chef places more care and love into her Vegetable dishes than most places spend on their Meat dishes. Where the Vegetables are bursting with amazing flavor and aromatic spices and herbs when needed, or beautifully, hauntingly reserved and sublime. Where there's no mock meat or overly processed ingredients, just a wonderful celebration of Vegetables, Legumes and Grains. That restaurant is Rahel Ethiopian Cuisine, located in the heart of Little Ethiopia on Fairfax.

One might notice the dreaded 5 letter V-word in the picture, but that is precisely what makes Rahel even more amazing: I've experienced so many vibrant, exciting flavors here that I never thought could be had at a vegan restaurant, all through the power of fragrant Ethiopian spices, herbs and just the Vegetables themselves, brought together by Chef Rahel Woldmedhin. Originally the owner of Messob (next door), Chef Rahel sold it and opened up the current Rahel restaurant 7 years ago, focusing on perfecting Ethiopian cuisine that focused on the Legumes, Grains and Vegetables, and the results are excellent. :)

I had heard Rahel recommended numerous times in various Chowhound discussions on Ethiopian food, thanks to westsidegal, Diana, mollyomormon and others, but I was skeptical. "How good could vegetarian Ethiopian food really be?" Ah, my shortsighted stupidity! :) If only I had known what I know now after trying Rahel. I wish I could send my past self a message from the future, telling the past me to "stop wondering and just go!" so I could've enjoyed a few extra years of Rahel, having arrived late to the party. :)

Walking into the restaurant, you're greeted by a row of traditional messob dining areas on the right, and standard glass top tables on the left.

During my 1st visit, I discover Rahel serves an $8.99 All-You-Can-Eat Buffet for lunch. There's a little bit of foodie elitism creeping in as I wonder if a Buffet is really the best way to experience Chef Rahel's offerings. But after speaking with the server and realizing that (1) most of the dishes on the menu have long prep and cook times (i.e., even if you order off their dinner menu, the dishes served at the Buffet during lunch come from the same long-stewing, slow-cooked batch); and (2) the Buffet covers about ~80% of the dishes offered on their full menu, I quickly realized this was shaping up to be a fantastic deal and the best way to enjoy Rahel's cooking.

(Note: The following Buffet and Food pictures may seem "boring" or "mundane," but the visuals belie the greatness within.)

I take a sample of their first four dishes, along with some Kencha (Cracked Wheat) and Injera (a soft, almost pancake-like bread).

I begin with the Yemisir Kik Wot (Split Lentil Stew with Red Pepper Sauce, seasoned with Assorted Spices).

The first bite changed all my perceptions in an instant: Chef Rahel's Red Lentil Stew is earthy, spicy, fragrant with a light amount of chili heat. It's nothing like most of the Lentil dishes I've had around town. Fantastic! :)

The key to this dish (and a few others on the menu) is Chef Rahel's version of the traditional Ethiopian Berbere spice mixture. Chef Rahel uses Red Pepper, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Cloves, Garlic and Ginger, amongst a few other spices, and the result is simply wonderful.

The 2nd dish I try is their Yeatar Alicha (Split-Pea Stew (Steamed Split-Peas with Onions, Seasoned with Garlic and Onions)).

This is another interesting dish, with bold Garlic and Onion undertones, while retaining a stronger earthiness compared to the Red Lentil Stew. I appreciate the uniqueness, but it doesn't harmonize with my palate like the Yemisir Kik Wot.

Next up is their Gomen (Steamed Kale, Seasoned with Garlic and Green Pepper).

Usually Steamed Kale can be too fibrous for some people, but Rahel's version is ultra-tender Kale, teasing your mouth with a light bitterness combined with a gentle burn from the Green Chilies.

The complementary Lentil Soup (included with the Lunch Buffet) is excellent. Whole Lentils provide a good chunkiness and heartiness, while never overpowering the senses.

Perhaps the only disappointment on the menu is their Duba Wet (Zucchini Stew).

This is probably the spiciest item on the menu, but it's only an immediate, moderate spicy heat at the most (nothing extreme), and it's the most notable aspect about this dish. The Zucchini itself is overcooked to the point that it's mush, and the Red Onions and Spices combine to give this a taste similar to a Spicy Marinara Sauce. It's not bad by any means, but it's my least favorite item on the menu.

Those familiar with Ethiopian cuisine may appreciate the heavy infusion of Teff (a type of Grass) in Rahel's housemade Injera (the Ethiopian Pancake-like Bread) which gives it a distinct tart, Sourdough-like flavor. While I enjoyed Rahel's version compared to some other versions, some of my guests felt it was just a little too sour for their tastes.

Those looking for a little bit of familiarity in their food might welcome the Yedinch Karot Wot (Potato and Carrot Stew).

The first thing that strikes me is the deep, genuine Potatoey flavor. There's a gentle sweetness from the Carrots, and both Vegetables are just cooked through with a nice texture.

Up 'til now, the dishes have been enjoyable and refreshing, but the next dish (and the combination with Kencha) is what really starts to show off some of Chef Rahel's subtle genius: Yefasolia Wet (Mixed Vegetable Stew, with Fresh String Beans & Carrots, Seasoned with Garlic, Ginger and Turmeric).

The String Beans are soft and pliable, and the Ginger and Turmeric really permeate the dish, elevating this above the norm. The Carrots add a natural sweetness to help round things out, and on its own, it's very good. But then I take a bite of this with some Kencha (Cracked Wheat) and it *completely* changes my reaction to this dish. The natural fragrance of the Cracked Wheat and subtleties really complement and alter the Yefasolia Wet into something gorgeous. :)

Even with that lesson in mind (Kencha combinations with the food instead of Injera), *nothing* could've prepared me for what looked to be the most mundane of dishes on the menu: Tekel Gomen (Stewed Cabbage with Tomatoes, Ginger, Garlic and Spices).

The Stewed Cabbage is so delightful, really aromatic, pure, savory and easily the best Cabbage dish I've had outside of a family's home. The Tomato and Garlic and Ginger are all very balanced and never crowd the stage, letting the Cabbage shine. But then I take a bite of this Cabbage Stew with Chef Rahel's Kencha (Cracked Wheat):


Words can't describe the culinary epiphany that hit me with that one bite. This is one of those eye-rolling moments of ecstasy. But before I overhype this too much, a clarification is in order: As absurdly decadent as Animal's amazing Foie Gras Loco Moco (with Quail Egg, Spam, Niman Ranch All-Natural Hamburger Patty, over Gold Rice) is in its slap-you-in-the-face-it's-SO-good, tidal wave of sexy lusciousness, so Rahel's combination of Stewed Cabbage and Kencha (Cracked Wheat) is spectacular in its reserved, pristine beauty and delicate kiss to your palate.

It starts with the Kencha (Cracked Wheat) that's slow cooked with Onions and an outstanding Olive Oil. The result is a base for your food that's the embodiment of subtly aromatic, nutty and delicious.

And then combining that with the already fragrant, lovingly stewed Tekel Gomen (Stewed Cabbage) and it's something I would've never expected to have experienced. Trying it with the more popular Injera Bread instead, and it's nowhere near as satisfying (but still enjoyable). It may sound blasphemous, but I prefer Chef Rahel's Kencha to use as a base for many of the dishes over the Injera (which I like more with other dishes). All-in-all, it's simply outstanding! :)

Fans of Indian Samosas should try Rahel's Sambussa (Fried Lentil-Filled Shells).

Chef Rahel's version is outstanding because they're made-to-order, and there's nothing quite like fresh fried dough, with a filling of Onions, Jalapeno Chilies and Lentils.

I'm so happy with my 1st visit, I'm already wrangling some other dear friends to join me on a 2nd visit a few days later. :) On this visit, I begin with their: Besso (Natural Drink made from Barley).

Taking a sip, probably the best way to describe this would be: Imagine the liquid meal that is a pint of Guinness. Triple the thickness of that and you have the mouthfeel of Besso. :) It's very hearty, thick and viscous. It's lightly sweet and mixed with Crushed Ice and probably something I wouldn't order again, but I'm glad I tried it once.

On this visit our server mentions to us that their Lunch Buffet usually changes out 1 of the 10 items being offered, depending on what Chef Rahel is making, so I grab my favorites and also sample the new dish of the day.

Yemiten Shiro Wot (Chickpea Stew, Roasted then Ground in Berbere Red Pepper Sauce, Seasoned with Assorted Spices).

Chef Rahel first roasts Chickpeas with Garlic and Onions, and then grinds them into a fine powder and stews it with her Berbere spice mixture and adds some additional spices. There's an immediate smoky heat that hits you, but tapers off pretty quickly. It's a nice foil for the more subtle dishes and the flavor profile is totally different than the other 9 dishes. Excellent. :)

My 3rd visit is marked by the long-overdue reunion of my dear friends from the Man Bites World crew: Noah, Mr. Meatballs and "Danielle" amongst other wonderful guests. :)

It's a great time with my tomodachi and with these heavy-hitters in the house, we decide to "start" with 2 Millennium Specials, which are generous, family-style Injera topped with ~90% of the Menu in small plate portions, including: Split Lentil Stew, Split-Pea Stew, String Beans and Carrot Stew, Steamed Greens, Sunflower Mixed with Injera (Fitfit), Siljo, Potato & Carrot Stew, the awesome Tekel Gomen (Stewed Cabbage), Pumpkin Stew, Tomato Fitfit, and Salad with House Dressing.

One of the new items not served at lunch that's included here is the Siljo (Broad Bean Paste), made from Broad Beans, Mustard Powder and Sunflower Seeds.

The Siljo has a nice kick to it, and is meant to be used as a condiment, to accent flavors. It comes across like a more subtle, clean Horseradish.

Probably the funkiest dish at Rahel might be their Sunflower Seed Fitfit, which is Sunflower Seeds spiced and mixed with Torn Injera. It's tart and very stand out; probably a bit too strange for my tastes. :)

Their Tomato Fitfit (Slow-Cooked Tomatoes, Spices, mixed with Torn Injera) tastes more familiar.

There's a beautiful, natural Tomato essence - sweet, tart, savory - that works perfectly saturating the Injera.

On a side note, we discovered that 2 Millennium Specials are more than enough for ~8 people (we couldn't even finish the 2), and Rahel provides bottomless Injera Bread for dinner.

During my 4th visit, my guest and I want to try some of their dinner portions for individual dishes, and we begin with one my favorites: Yemisir Kik Wot (Split Lentil Stew in Berbere and Assorted Spices).

Even with individual dishes, Rahel serves the dish in a traditional manner, providing a wide Injera base to serve whatever you order onto.

Probably one of the most overlooked items for newcomers is the oddly placed Tofu Wet (Stewed Tofu with Garlic, Tomatoes, Onions and Assorted Spices, served Pan Grilled).

The Tofu Wet is literally buried on the menu, hidden under the "Special" section, as one tiny line item (with no description) under the "Vegan Feast" Special Combination. It's a shame most people may not notice it because it is *awesome*! (^_^)

The Tofu is well cooked, permeating with the Garlic, Tomatoes and Onion aromas. It has a mouth-wateringly delicious, savory quality about it, and a real contrast with the other menu items. Wonderful!

To finish off the evening, we try their wonderful Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony (another item that goes unnoticed on the menu).

It takes a little bit of time because when you order it, is when they begin to fresh roast the Coffee Beans and they bring them out in a hot metal ladle and present it to the table to let you smell the aroma (which is sensational). When it's ready, it's then brought out in a traditional jebena (Ethiopian Clay Coffee Pot).

For a sweetener, Chef Rahel uses a 100% Pure Organic Agave Nectar, which gives their Ethiopian Coffee a subtle sweetness that doesn't overpower.

And the Ethiopian Coffee itself? I'm no Coffee expert, but it's very fragrant with a nice, deep bitterness smoothed out with the Agave Nectar. A lovely way to finish off a meal.

Service at Rahel has been perfectly fine. Relaxed, informal, with Chef Rahel coming out to check on the customers from time-to-time. Prices range from $8.99 for the All-You-Can-Eat Lunch Buffet, to $9.95 - $29.95 (for 2 people) for their Dinner menu and Large Combinations. The various Combination platters they serve are some of the most cost efficient ways to enjoy their menu, e.g., on the 3rd visit with our large party, it came out to be ~$12 per person (including tax and tip)! Add in the ridiculously fair-priced $8.99 for their Lunch Buffet (which gives you access to ~80% of their wonderful menu) and Rahel represents a great bargain any time of day.

Rahel Ethiopian Vegan Cuisine is a place to be cherished in L.A., an outstanding celebration of Vegetables, Legumes and Grains through Chef Rahel's deft touch and vibrant cooking. There's no weird, oddly shaped faux meat, or cutting edge fusion experiments. Just a simple, humble restaurant that actually takes the time to slowly cook and stew and care about Vegetables and infuse them with engaging, interesting flavors from the Ethiopian heritage.

While I love their more bold Yemisir Kik Wot (Red Lentil Stew) and Yemiten Shiro Wot (Roasted, Ground Chickpea Stew), I positively adore the understated, ethereal dishes as well, with my highlight being the nuanced brilliance that is their Tekel Gomen (Stewed Cabbage) eaten with Kencha (Slow Cooked Cracked Wheat with Onions and Olive Oil). This isn't "Vegan cuisine" or "Vegetarian cuisine": It's just great home cooking where the Vegetables and Grains and Legumes are taken to a profound level.

Rating: 8.8 (out of 10.0)

Rahel Ethiopian Vegan Cuisine
1047 South Fairfax Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90019
Tel: (323) 937-8401

Hours: 7 Days A Week, [Lunch Buffet] 11:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.
[Dinner] 3:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.


Anna A. said...

You did some serious Ethiopian veggie feasting! Sign me up for some of that cabbage. I have never tried the Ethiopian coffee - next time. The honey beer is great.

lynn @ the actors diet said...

what a terrific, thorough review! thanks for sharing with us. i have heard wonderful things about rahel but have yet to go (my husband isn't a huge fan of ethiopian food and he's the veg head) but maybe i can twist his arm...

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anna,

You definitely have to try the Stewed Cabbage (with Cracked Wheat :), and the Ethiopian Coffee. Let me know what you think.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Lynn,

Thanks. :) Let me know what you think if you go. If he enjoys Vegetables this is a great restaurant for that.

burumun said...

I didn't realize Rahel was all the way vegan (thought it was just vegetarian, though I should've noticed it on the sign)!
Sounds like it's still pretty darn good though, I'd like to try this place soon. It's supposed to be one of the best Ethiopian offerings on Fairfax - vegan or not.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

It's quite tasty. :) Let me know if you go and what you think. :)

Noah said...

Yeah, I really like this place. To be honest, I may even enjoy it more than the meat restaurants, and that lunch special can't be beat.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Noah,

Definitely a great place. I'm glad you really enjoyed it as well. :)

Yah, I think I actually like their Lunch better than Dinner only because for Lunch you can choose however much or little you want of ~80% of their menu, and you can more easily experiment with trying various dishes with Cracked Wheat vs. Injera, etc. :)

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