Fit for a Queen
Ogbe and Felitia Guobadia, he from Nigeria, she from Virginia, met at Rutgers University and married in Nigeria's former capital Lagos, where they opened an American fried chicken joint. Political turmoil prodded the two back to New Jersey, where they operated a successful African art gallery/Ethiopian restaurant. They next landed in Miami's Design District, where this past May they opened another gallery/restaurant, Sheba Ethiopian Cuisine.
Sheba is an elegant earth-toned, 205-seat eatery that seamlessly melds traditional African craft with chic, contemporary restaurant design. The crafts and imports include carved wooden masks, wicker wall hangings, and mesabs, colorful mushroom-shaped tables woven like baskets and surrounded by short wooden stools (upon which nobody was seated during our visits). American artifacts include a glowing backlit bar, sleek brown leather banquettes, and crisp, champagne-colored linen-topped tables; there are more sweeping curves to the spacious room than on a queen's sinuous crown. The adjoining African arts and crafts shop is accessible from the dining room.
Ethiopia's distinctive cuisine is a result of trade winds that, during the 1400s, blew in chili peppers from Portugal, ginger from the Orient, and all sorts of exotic spices from India and the Middle East. More often than not, Ethiopian dinner comes in the form of thick stews (wat) served atop a spongy, sourdough pancake called injera, which is made from fermented teff (an almost microscopically minuscule grain with a taste similar to millet). This oversize round of grayish-beige bread customarily is placed over the surface of the mesab, which has led more than a few foreigners to mistake the bread for a tablecloth. The puzzlement probably only increases as surrounding diners rip pieces of the pancake-tablecloth with which to scoop up entrées and side dishes. Such confusion won't occur at Sheba, where the yeasty injera does indeed replace utensils (silverware available upon request) but is served folded up on a side plate (and is also found on most plates, underneath the food).
Injera moonlights as an ingredient in some dishes, which are then called fit fit -- as in Sheba's fit fit salad, a slightly piquant mush of the bread minced with tomatoes, onions, and jalapeño peppers, a cilantro-less sister in taste to salsa fresca. A cold, sprightly purée of green lentils (mesir azefah) also gets jazzed with jalapeño, along with a scintillating pinch of ginger. Zaalouk and loubia are warm appetizers, the former an assertively cumin-scented mix of eggplant cooked with olive oil, garlic, and ginger, the latter lobbing similar spicing onto sautéed green beans.
Entrées are divvied into chicken, beef, lamb, seafood, and vegetarian selections. Within these categories are a series of wat and tibs. Wat, mentioned earlier, resembles meat stew minus the vegetables (unless of course it's a vegetable wat). When they're not stewing meat, Ethiopians pan-fry it in butter with garlic, onions, tomatoes, and green peppers, and call the resultant dish tibs -- prefaced by whatever their word is for the defining ingredient. Beg wat, then, translates to a small dice of lamb braised in red wine and spicy berbere (a red spice mix of up to sixteen ingredients, including garlic, ginger, fenugreek, cumin, and allspice). Berbere adds piquancy to the beg wat, but while Ethiopian cuisine is spicy, it is rarely incendiary. Doro wat, with chicken legs and thighs likewise stewed with berbere, is Ethiopia's national dish. Sheba's version pretty much sticks to tradition, meat falling off the bones and sounding multiple spice notes; not to be picky, but it lacked the customary hard-boiled egg.
Doro tibs, made with boneless chicken breast, and a filet mignon-based version curiously called "special tibs," are both sautés of the respective meats more discreetly seasoned than wat, and, as noted, more butter-laden. Ethiopian cuisine uses an enormous amount of clarified butter, which when infused with onions, garlic, ginger, and spices is called niter kibbeh. This fabulous fat contributes a delicious underlying richness to many of Sheba's dishes, along with an insidious dose of cholesterol no doubt.
I've mentioned tibs and fit fit. Can you guess what a tibs fit fit is? That's right, cubed beef sautéed with onions, green peppers, tomatoes, and injera. And a tibs wat would be what? Well, pretty boring would be the answer to that one, strips of beef simmered with key wat sauce; this is supposed to be the spiciest of stews, but in a menu loaded with gentle firecrackers, this one was a dud.
Outside the wat/tibs realm: chicken, lamb, beef, or shrimp alecha, which means jacked with jalapeños, ginger, rosemary, and herb butter. Also zilzil, a terrific tangle of lamb strips sweetly marinated in honey wine and awash in awaze (a sort of mustard/chili sauce). One afternoon I enjoyed a fresh, lightly breaded, cleanly pan-fried South African haddock (assa m'charmale). Lunch is an opportune time to sample the dinner items for a lesser price or to try some of the tasty wraps creatively filled with curried vegetables, grilled lamb with fresh mango chutney, and so forth. Service was slower during the day than at night, but the staff is consistently amiable, accommodating, and intimately familiar with the cuisine.
Sheba offers a large repertoire of mostly legume-based vegetarian dishes, including shiro wat, puréed split peas reddened with paprika and berbere; kik alicha, a milder purée of yellow split peas, onions, and green peppers; mesir wat, a somewhat sweet stew of red lentils with a chili-like flavor; and gomen wat, fresh collard greens crunchily sautéed with garlic, ginger, and tomatoes. These dishes are available à la carte for $12 or $13 each, or a sampling of five for $23. If you're set on ordering meat or seafood, don't despair, because two vegetables accompany each main course. You get quite the meal for your money here.
There are so many tempting menu items, but to make ordering easier, you might opt to share one of two larger dishes fit for King Solomon. The first is a meat combination platter, which should be called a meat/vegetable combo, for there are three of each generously portioned upon the plate. The other, "Sheba's Best of the Best," is "destined to be shared between two," but designed for three or four -- the prodigious $46 platter piled with five vegetable dishes, five meat dishes, and some shrimp tibs for good measure (or the same number of seafood dishes for $10 more).
Ethiopians don't eat much other than fruit for dessert, and none of the sweets here are worth breaking with tradition. Still, those who like their rum cake soft and laced with a load of liquor are likely to appreciate one of the three flavors served up (vanilla, banana, and chocolate). Coffee, thought to have originated in the highlands of Kaffa, was marred by an overly heavy infusion of cinnamon. Tea is a better bet, or maybe you might just uncork another bottle of South African wine, kick back, and bask in the warmth of this utopian Ethiopian restaurant.
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