CLEVELAND, Ohio - "Ethnic" cuisine is changing in Cleveland. Expanding. Growing.
Where once that term meant pierogi and schnitzel and pasta and maybe Chinese, today Cleveland ethnic eats are as diverse as the city.
Until recently, however, one ethnic cuisine was sorely underrepresented: Ethiopian. The wonderful Empress Taytu has impressed on St. Clair Avenue for more than two decades. But there was room for more Ethiopian flavor in town.
It's not that Cleveland has a huge Ethiopian community - it doesn't. But Ethiopian cuisine - a very vegetarian-friendly option - has been growing in popularity in America for the last several decades. So Zoma owners Zeleke Belete and his wife, Betty Kassa, decided to take a chance and open the area's second Ethiopian restaurant on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights in December.
It was a leap of faith that has paid off for the couple that moved from Addis Ababa in 2004, with Clevelanders immediately gravitating to the exotic but cozy 49-seat eatery named after the village where Belete's mother lived. Weekends are so busy now Belete takes reservations, and the charming space was crowded even at 5 p.m. on a recent weekday.
No wonder. Not only does Zoma feature a cuisine that is new and exciting to many Clevelanders - and one which stands out even on the diverse restaurant row that is Lee Road. With its simple, vegetarian and vegan heavy menu- inspired by the fact that Ethiopia's Orthodox Christian community refrains from meat and dairy for much of the year - it's a perfect fit for modern, health-oriented diners. With vegetables so prominent in their cooking, Ethiopians have perfected wonderful spice combinations to enhance their deceptively simple dishes. Not that Zoma is exclusively vegetarian, there are also several beef, chicken, lamb and fish meals on the menu for carnivores.
We sampled both vegetarian and meat dishes on a recent visit. The vegetarian dishes, most of which were also vegan, were so satisfying we would have been fine without the chicken - but it was fantastic, too.
We began with one of few appetizers Zoma offers, crispy vegetarian sambusas stuffed with sauteed lentils, onions and jalapeno peppers, served with a bowl of hot and sweet chili sauce ($3.50). The thin pastry shell was perfectly crispy, and the very hot sauce added a nice flavor to the lentils. My 10-year-old found it too hot, though, her only objection to the menu that offers many options for open-minded young diners.
For her entree, she chose the vegetarian combination plate, a great way to sample Zoma's myriad veggie options. Guests could chose three of the following for $15.99, or four for $16.99: split red lentils, split yellow peas, collard greens and kale, chickpea stew, green beans and carrots, or cabbage. She opted for the red lentils, split yellow peas and chickpea stew.
She never thought vegetables could taste so good. The lentils, simmered in a medium hot berbere with garlic and onion, were wonderfully flavored, as were the split peas in Turmeric, onion and garlic. None of the flavors were overwhelming, even for a young palate. But our favorite had to have been the chickpeas, so delectably simmered in tomato bullion, onion and garlic. When we happened to mention to Belete how much we liked the dish, he ran back to the kitchen to get more - typical of the warm, welcoming service at this colorful spot decorated with pictures of Emperor Haile Selassie and other Ethiopian greats.
But I'm almost forgetting the best part - from a kids point of view, at least. Ethiopian cuisine is eaten by hand, not with silverware. Small pieces of injera sourdough flat bread are broken off and used to scoop up the vegetables and meat. It was surprisingly easy to adapt on our visit - way easier than using chopsticks - and made the meal more fun for all. With the food served communally on large plates, it made for an entertaining bonding experience. Most groups sit a Western-style tables here, but there are a few straw mesob basket tables for those who want the fuller experience.
Since I had sampled the beef tibs - cubed beef simmered and fried with onion, rosemary, jalapeno and garlic - on a previous visit, I opted for the chicken tibs this time. Like the beef, the meat was tender and succulent, served in a sizzling pan. The spice blend and garlic and herb butter wonderfully enhanced the breast meat ($15.99). Other entree options include traditional spicy chicken stew, quanta fir fir (dried beef bits and injera) and kitfo (steak tartare in butter sauce with hot chili powder and cottage cheese mixed with kale).
All entrees come with a side of salad or split yellow peas or split red lentils - and of course, enough injera to scoop it all up. When the last piece on injera served under the entree is gone, the meal is considered over.
Unless you opt for a cup of traditional Ethiopian hot black tea ($2.50) with cinnamon and cloves, or Ethiopian coffee ($5.50 per pot). On Sundays, Zoma even offers a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony from 1 - 4 p.m. Guests sit on low seats near the lovely lighted artificial-tree in the front window and are served three rounds of fair-trade Ethiopian coffee, $15, as the groovy sounds of Afro-beat Ethiopian pop waft through the air. From appetizers to coffee, Zoma is truly redefining ethnic cuisine in Cleveland.
Address: 2240 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights
Phone: 216- 465-3239
Hours: Noon to 10 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday. Noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Entrees, $11.99 - $17.99. Appetizers, $3.50 - $5.75.
Reservations: Recommended Thursday - Sunday.
Credit cards: All major.
Bar service: No alcohol served
Cleanliness: Very clean.
Kids: No kids menu, but many foods kids would like.
Quality of service: Gracious and welcoming.
Rating: * * *
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