What happens in Dukem, stays in Dukem: Ethiopian Las Vegas on the Danforth

So, a couple of Saturdays ago in mid January, the Vicarious Travel Society met at Dukem, an Ethiopian Restaurant in the East End of Toronto.

The original plan was to go to our trusty standby out on the other end of Bloor in the Dovercourt Village, The Queen of Sheba. It had been some time since we’d been to see the Queen, so I thought I’d do a little research, check and see if it was still around, and if so, where, because I couldn’t quite remember. A Google search sucked me straight into Chowhound, where many treasonous statements were made about the Queen of Sheba and how it could hardly be compared to nearby luminaries African Palace and Nazareth. But reigning over the vigorous Nazareth-African Palace fray in the affections of Chowhounders was this other place called Dukem.

When Margie begged off on our initial Audience with The Queen (providing post-holiday bloat for an excuse) and the time came for rescheduling, I suggested we give Dukem a shot.

According to the restaurant’s website, Dukem is named after a town south of Addis Ababa which is a popular vacation destination and general pit stop, and the proprietor hoped to evoke fond memories and nostalgia among Ethiopian expatriates (although more likely blank stares from everyone else). I have a fairly limited experience with Ethiopian restaurants in Toronto (The Queen and Ethiopian House are pretty much it) but visually Dukem compared well: it’s a cosy room, maybe two dozen seats, if that, low lit and veering away from the decorative tradition of “faded travel poster stuck up slightly askew with blutack”. The neutral, cream coloured walls are lined with afro-surrealistic-moderne paintings, the chairs are simple and solid and there’s a comfortable looking bar at the back. A thick curtain at the door protects diners from the arctic blast of the street. The welcome is friendly and prompt: myself, Margie and her pre-teen daughter were quickly bustled to a table and sipping tall glasses of spicy tea not long after that.

We dillydallied over the menu and decided on the Dukem Vegetarian Combo, with an order of the Doro Wat (chicken legs) and Dukem Special Tibs (lamb). While we waited, we watched other tables having the Traditional Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony administered to them: it involves incense, popcorn, and tableside performance coffee bean roasting….no corners cut here.

The food came within about 20 minutes. The Dukem Special Tibs declared their specialness to the restaurant at large by being delivered on a sizzling hot plate, then spooned quickly into a waiting space on the injera platform. We also got a neatly folded triangle of fresh, warm injera each. It looked great:

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and tasted even better. The vegetable dishes in particular were amazingly distinct, with a good range of textures and materials. Three kinds of lentils (brown, yellow and red), cabbage and carrots, beets, collards, and chickpeas all realized their full potential….this one heavier on the cumin or cardamom, that one touched with turmeric or berbere. I hate collards more than nearly anything, but I couldn’t get enough of them at Dukem: not a trace of their typical bitterness was there. The Doro Wat was tender enough to be easily torn from the bone with small pieces of injera held between fingertips, the egg miraculously not overcooked, the sauce a deep, malevolent brown.

The Dukem special tibs were tough, but flavourful and the sauce made interesting use of rosemary, something I don’t remember tasting anywhere else. There was a little feist provided by chile of some sort: but not to the degree that would necessarily drive one to beer, or intimidate our 11 year old dining companion who found nearly everything to be to her liking. Everything was arranged in piles around a central heap of lettuce and tomato salad dressed with oil and lemon – very simple, but refreshing.

A nice aspect of eating off a communal, large platter lined with absorbent bread is the final, soggy stage: all these diverse flavours and sauces soak slowly into the injera and recombine in different ways, complemented by the slightly sour tang of the base. Injera with salad dressing is surprisingly delicious and we kept chatting and picking at it until it was nearly all gone. This is obviously the kind of food that should be taken slowly, talked over, lingered over until you’re almost hungry again. There’s probably a special word for it in Amharic, the nethermost layer of injera stained like a flag after battle with the remnants of the meal.

We ordered the Coffee Ceremony more out of a sense of duty than anything else, but were very pleasantly surprised. First, they bring out a bowl of popcorn (!) and some burning incense.

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Popcorn turned out to be quite more-ish with coffee. Then about 10 minutes later, someone comes out from the kitchen with a small iron pot full of smoking coffee beans and swirls them expertly around with one hand, tableside:

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“Are they Yirgacheffe?” we ask. “What?” says the server.  “The beans…Yir-ga-chef-fe?” we say again. “I don’t know,” says the server, smiling warmly. “I’m not from Ethiopia.”

Then the beans disappear back into the kitchen, are ground and brewed and eventually return in a tall, gourd-like pot. The server sprinkles a tiny pile of raw sugar into the bottom of the small cups and then pours the coffee from a moderate height, aerating it slightly as it bubbles into the cup much in the same way as Moroccan mint tea.

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It’s thick, intense, chocolatey, smoky and dark. Amazing, in short, and a revelation to the 11 year old. “This is GOOD,” she says, looking into the tiny cup with shining, eager eyes. Have we created a monster?

It’s an auspicious start for 2013 for the VTS. We talk about where we’re going next: Iran, perhaps? Or maybe the Guyanese place across the street from Dukem. Margie’s going to Rome in June…perhaps Seven Numbers? Stay tuned.

Dukem – about $60 for three, including Coffee Ceremony, Spiced tea, tax and tip

Dukem on Urbanspoon

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