Aster Kassaye and family formerly ran Aster's Ethiopian Restaurant on Rundberg Lane in the early Nineties until they left to rejoin family in Virginia. After her return to Austin, Kassaye had been producing her fare under the label Aster's Ethiopian Catering, selling precooked items at Wheatsville, Whole Foods, Central Market, and local farmers' markets. Now the Kassaye clan again has a restaurant, on the northwest corner of I-35 and Dean Keeton, and we couldn't be happier.
Ethiopian cuisine does not use pork, since the country is Muslim and Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, and there is a wealth of vegetable sides, so vegetarians naturally flock toward Ethiopian venues. The flavor profile resembles Pakistani or Afghani cuisine, crossed with North African: complex layers of spice and piquancy. Food is served on injera, a spongy, crepelike flatbread made with teff flour, which is ground from the seeds of a species of love grass (Eragrostis tef). This bread is also the eating utensil. Although cutlery is provided if requested, it's a lot more fun to eat with your hands (actually it's more of a soft-taco style).
We've cruised the menu at Aster's and tried the bulk of the items, finding them all delicious. There is a 13-item lunch menu: smaller-portion entrée meat or vegetable dishes with two sides and injera for $6.50 (still, a substantial lunch offering). After lunch the menu expands to 18 items, served in larger portions, with prices in the $8 to $13.50 range.
For lunch, we've tried the spicy beef cubes, flavored with Berbere (a spice blend of cumin, fenugreek, cardamom, allspice, cloves, chile, and others), ginger, and garlic. The meat is very tender and the spicing intoxicating. For dinner we've eaten the lamb stew with Berbere ($13.50): unctuous cubes of rich lamb with a few marrow-laden bones included.
The Doro Wott (Ethiopia's national dish, $11.50) is superb: two meaty and tender chicken legs, with a hard-boiled egg, bathed in a thick spice paste. The Kitfo ($12.50) is unique: the Ethiopian version of steak tartar, mixed with spiced butter and mit'mit'a (a chile-based spice with black cardamom and salt). You can get it raw or rare, excellent either way.
We've sampled all of the vegetables, with our favorites being the collard greens (subtly spiced and buttery) and the eggplant (with tomatoes, garlic, onions, and spice). Vegetable prices range from $8 to $12, for the combination plate of as many as you like. There are two salads: Lentil is tart and spicy, with a lemon dressing; bread salad is small pieces of injera with tomato, peppers, and onion, tossed in a lemony dressing. The tartness marries well with the rich entrées.
The spicy lentils are sublime: peppery, dark, and rich. The sweet cabbage is combined with green beans, carrots, and onions; garlic; and ginger in a turmeric sauce. Mild split lentils are rich and soft, with a hint of ginger. The potatoes are a wonderful texture, not too soft or too crisp, in a sauce with cinnamon and ginger, accompanied by some greens beans, tomato, and garlic.
Service is attentive, and the staff is great at making suggestions for the newbies. Currently, Aster's is BYOB, and we'd suggest a lager, preferably Ethiopian: Harar or Bati if you can find them. Another good option is a sturdy ginger beer such as Stewart's or Maine Root. Aster's makes a fine cup of coffee as well; apropos, considering Ethiopia is the birthplace of the coffee bean.
Austin is again blessed with a venue for Ethiopian cuisine, and comparing Aster's dishes to those we've sampled in other cities, we can attest that she is producing the real deal. Get over there and give it a try. This is one that we don't want to lose!
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