Or perhaps, it's just because I hadn't gotten around to eating in them yet.
The Little One and I got to Asmara yesterday. I don't understand why the place is not overrun with families overflowing from the Children's Museum around the corner: What could be better, from a child's perspective, than a restaurant where using your hands is not just permitted but expected? The decor is very kid-friendly as well: LO insisted on sitting in the front booth, near wooden sculptures of a giraffe, an elephant and a zebra.
Until moving to Portland, I was more familiar with Ethiopian food than that of their neighbor (and enemy) to the north, Eritrea. The relationship between the two countries might be compared to a forced marriage that gave way to an acrimonious divorce. The very short version: Eritrea had been an Italian colony. After the Italians left, the Ethiopians annexed the country without asking the Eritreans if that was what they wanted. The Eritreans fought against the Ethiopians in a decades-long civil war. The Eritreans ultimately got independence, but since then the two countries have fought several border wars in which thousands of people have died.
In spite of the deadly animosity, there are cross-border cultural links and similarities. For example, Tigrinya, the most commonly spoken language in Eritrea, native tongue of 60% of the population, is also spoken by about three million Ethiopians.
All of this is to say that while Eritrean food is very similar to the Ethiopian food to which I became accustomed in my Washington DC sojourns, the food at Asmara has some subtle differences, and I do not know enough to say whether those differences are an authentic representations of how tastes differ in Asmara (the Eritrean capital city, not the restaurant) as opposed to Addis Ababa, or are the result of concessions to a Maine palate. While one can get spicy dishes at Asmara (the restaurant), even the spicy dishes are more gently spiced than what one finds in Adams-Morgan.
Nonetheless, the food is delicious. Our choices were constrained by the fact that LO and I would be sharing, so I let her pick: We got the lentils, with a side of cabbage, carrots and potatoes. All dishes at Asmara come with a side salad of lettuce and tomato, dressed in a light vinaigrette that seems, to me, to show some lingering Italian colonial influence. All are served on top of a piece of injera, the spongy, sour flatbread that serves as the sole utensil. The best part, in my opinion, is ending the meal by eating the pieces of injera into which the sauces and dressings of the dishes, sides and salad have soaked. On previous visits, HL has gotten their African sweet tea, which is generously seasoned with clove, and complements seasoning of the dishes nicely.
The service has always been pleasant, on each of our visits. An especially well-thought-out touch of hospitality is the provision of steamed cloth napkins before the meal, so that one can wipe one's hands before the meal.
I am surprised, given the fact that Eritrea has a long coastline (and left Ethiopia landlocked upon its secession), that there are not many fish or seafood dishes on the menu: Just one, with salmon, which I'm pretty sure is not caught much in the Red Sea. Chicken, beef and lamb are amply represented, and there are many vegetarian options as well (as evidenced from our meatless meal).
One complaint is that they only provide one piece of injera per entree--and if one orders only one entree, then the "plate" is the only piece. If you request extra injera, they charge for it: $2 a piece. Even so, with a single entree and one extra piece of bread, we left satisfied at a reasonable price: $17 for the two of us, including tax and tip. On weekdays they serve lunch specials, with a couple selected entrees at an even lower price.
Another disappointment, though not with the restaurant itself: Every time we have been there, it has been nearly empty. This is a place that deserves to be buzzing. Hopefully this entry will do its small part to remedy that situation.