Connecticut Magazine - February 2016

The Connecticut Table

Erik Ofgang 2016-01-15 22:41:01

All Hands on Teff ERITREAN/ETHIOPIAN CUISINE BEST SERVED UTENSIL FREE Teff If gluten is the root of all evil, then teff—an ancient gluten-free grain indigenous to Eritrea and Ethiopia—might be the savior. The hardy and durable grain, with lots of calcium and other nutrients, has long been popular in select countries in the Horn of Africa. In recent years, it has been making its way into U.S. food culture. The grain is also the namesake and culinary backbone of Teff, a Stamford restaurant that opened in July and provides a compelling introduction to the grain, as well as the myriad spices and tastes of Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine. It’s an introduction that is often, literally, hands on. “The traditional way to eat Eritrean/Ethiopian food is by hand. [At Teff] forks and knives are not set at tables in an effort to encourage folks to try something different,” explains Senay Mekonen, general manager and one of the restaurant’s owners. Teff is the grain in injera, a flatbread that is at the heart of the dining experience here—it’s the pita, tortilla chip and pasta of this cuisine all rolled into one. With an almost sponge-like texture and crêpe-like appearance, it serves as fork, knife and spoon for the meal. Fortunately, this I-can’t-believe-it’snot-gluten bread is surprisingly addictive—paper thin and easy to rip and fold, it is light and airy and made everything we tried taste even better. The upscale décor and ambiance, which effectively fuses modern and traditional touches, also complemented our meal, as did the restaurant’s friendly, family-business vibe. Mekonen’s mother, Hadas Mengesha, is the co-owner and restaurant’s chef, his aunt is sous chef, his sister is the operations manager and a cousin works at the restaurant, as do Mekonen’s brothers and father, when they have time. To create the food at Teff, Mengesha draws on the recipes she learned early in life growing up in her native Ethiopia, where she was the third of 16 children. Many of the spices incorporated into the restaurant’s dishes come from family members in Ethiopia. Prior to opening the restaurant, Mengesha and her family owned Red Sea Deli and Grille for 13 years in the location now occupied by Teff; before that she worked as a line cook at the Marriott Hotel in Stamford. During our visit, there were two appetizers offered, both standouts. The Komidere Fitfit is a vegan dish made with chopped tomatoes, onions and jalapeños that are tossed in olive oil and lemon juice, and then hand-mixed with pieces of injera. The result is a wonderful marriage of fresh and refreshing summer flavors that we’d gladly eat every day. The second appetizer, Kategna, consists of rolled strips of injera coated with Ethiopian pepper and spiced clarified butter called tesmi. It packs some definite heat in terms of spiciness, and pairing it with the Komidere Fitfit makes for an excellent fire-and-ice combo. The main courses at Teff are split into vegan and meat or chicken. Each section of the menu offers a tasting option, which allows guests to choose four items, perfect for those who like to try different things. Every entrée is served atop a giant piece of injera, which is the size of a small pizza. Our server explained how to break up the injera in order to use it to scoop up our food. All the dishes we tried had a fresh vibrancy and a flavor akin to grandma’s cooking. Favorites included the Siga Aletcha—oh-so-tender pieces of beef simmered in a mild sauce of Ethiopian curry powder and spiced clarified butter, then seasoned with garlic, rosemary, ginger and mild jalapeños. The Ingudai Tibs, traditionally sautéed meats or vegetables, are a specialty at Teff, with great pride taken in preparation of a vegan version. “It features portobello mushrooms,” Mekonen explains. “It’s cooked in a homemade mushroom stock and has the same veggies as in the meat options. Instead of butter, this is tossed in olive oil and berbere.” Teff has been BYOB, but as of January, the goal was to begin offering liquor soon, so call ahead to check. Once alcohol is offered, Mekonen says to expect beers from Eritrea/Ethiopia as well as other African brews, homemade honey wine (known as mes or tej), as well as other wines and liquors. The restaurant had not yet begun offering dessert, a disappointing drawback that reflects cultural tendencies. “Eritrean/Ethiopian cuisine doesn’t feature ‘traditional’ desserts. It’s normally coffee, tea and some popcorn or fruit,” Mekonen says. However, in the coming months, the plan is to add Western desserts utilizing Ethiopian or Eritrean ingredients, such as using a popular cactus fruit from the region for a sorbet or using teff as the base grain for pastries such as gluten-free chocolate chip cookies. Until then, you can end your meal with an excellent Ethiopian coffee—good enough to drink black, the coffee is made with beans imported directly from the Yirgacheffe region of Ethiopia, roasted in-house in small daily batches. With its upscale setting, abundance of standout meat and vegan dishes, as well as its overall uniqueness, Teff is a destination worth traveling to for diners looking for something very different. Plus, did we mention you’re encouraged to eat with your hands? Teff 113 West Main St., Stamford (203) 998-7474, Hours: Wed.-Sun. 5-10 p.m. Closed Mon.-Tues. Price range: Appetizers $7, dinner entrées $13-$23. Wheelchair accessible. AMBIANCE A large, open dining area is decorated with dark wood walls and pictures of scenic landscapes. A roomy, festive feel was enhanced during our visit by a soundtrack of lively Eritrean and Ethiopian music. SERVICE The close-knit nature of the staff— many are family members or family friends—results in service that is warm and sincerely welcoming. FOOD For many guests, this will be their first experience with Eritrean and Ethiopian food, and it won’t disappoint. Super-fresh ingredients, many imported from Ethiopia, are combined into vibrant and memorable dishes.

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