Despite the numerous awards displayed at its entrance, Asmara fails to justify any of them. As hungry as we were, any meal should have at least satisfied us, but instead we just came away feeling empty and queasy.
Asmara hints at its Ethiopian roots by hanging a sparse collection of traditional artifacts on its pristine white walls. The place is small, but does not achieve maximum coziness because of the hospital-like sterility. Even the bathroom contributes to this atmosphere by selling exorbitantly priced $1.00 condoms. Ironically, the perceived sterility only goes so far. The dining experience is actually rather unclean by our ethnocentric Western standards; there are neither napkins nor silverware for the patrons, and with two of our guests affected with mysterious sniffles, your reviewers were somewhat uneasy about picking at a communal platter with pieces of injera--spongy, sour, pancake-like bread.
The service was shoddy. Even though the waitress had a smile stretching from ear to ear and a sense of humor about our mangling of Ethiopian food names, we were rather displeased with the long wait for food. There weren't even any munchies to relieve our hunger pangs after the long walk down Mass. Ave. And it was more disturbing than funny when the other waiter brought us someone else's food for the second time. We didn't appreciate being teased.
Of course, we didn't appreciate the food once we got it, either. The best dish happened to be the least exotic of the five we sampled. The Asmara Tibbs is a simple diced beef with peppers and onions, not quite the way Ma would cook it, but not all that different either. Naturally, it was devoured first and ended up being the only dish which did not wreak havoc on our gastrointestinal tracts later that night. The chicken house special is a spicy, curry-like dish, partly finger-food because of the hunks of bone-dry chicken and the single hard-boiled egg plopped in the middle. If the house special was what the critics were thinking of when they gave Asmara its award for excellence in "spicy meat dishes," those critics must have liked their spices dull. From the vegetarian section, we chose a lentil mush, which didn't taste much different from the other mush they slopped down for free in the center of our platter. Not to say that that was a bad thing; although a bit bland, both of them were entirely unoffensive, until one of our guests stopped using the bread and started picking at it with his fingers. All of us took that habit up eventually, because the bread was so sour it made our stomachs churn. And then there was the lamb... we think. It was so unremarkable, it didn't even taste like lamb, and we couldn't even identify it until we remembered what we had ordered. The worst offender to our systems, however, was the Kitfo, raw beef soaked in butter, and it looked even worse than it sounds. As the cow's blood finally seeped through the bread padding beneath it and onto the cooked portions of the platter, we felt it was time to stop our intimate pickings and just ask for the check.
We did leave with a sweet taste in our mouths, because the check thankfully came with some cheap hard candy. But if we had wanted butter-scotch, it would have been easier just to get a bag across the street at CVS.
This week's guests:
Chris Calabrese, Rumei Furman, and Daniel Saul.
This week's restaurant:
739 Massachusetts Avenue, Central Square Tel: 864-7447