Sheba's vegetarian sampler, with a special order of tibs (lamb) in the middle. - Photo by Danielle Sweeney
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The mural on the side of the building makes Sheba easy to spot. - Photo by Erik Zygmont
North Baltimore and midtown had Wallis Warfield Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor. Now Canton has the Queen of Sheba, if only in dramatic mural form on the corner of Foster Ave. and Clinton St.
Sheba, a new Ethiopian restaurant at the former site of Mojito, opened in early May, but work on its namesake mural began in April. The Queen of Sheba was a queen of Ethiopia, who, according to legend, founded the Solomonic Dynasty, a line of rulers who led Ethiopia until 1974.
Nurlign Makonnen, who co-owns Sheba—and co-owned its predecessor, Mojito—decided that Canton had too many beer and burger bars. He opted to close his American restaurant and serve his native cuisine instead.
“Ethiopian food is what we know,” says Makonnen, who is from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and has lived in the U.S. since 1999.
Makonnen says Ethiopian food is unique among African cuisine.
“Unlike most of Africa, Ethiopia does not have the colonial and culinary links to French and British culture. We have 3,000 years of history and trading with the Middle East
and India. These are our culinary influences,” he says.
You can definitely taste the Middle Eastern and Indian influences in the dal-like lentil and pea dishes, and in the spiciness of Sheba’s stews.
Sheba’s menu is small. Sambusas, small lentil- or ground-meat-filled pastries, are the only appetizers. Main courses, many of which are meat-based, make up the rest of the eight-dish menu.
Ethiopian cuisine features many meat-centered dishes and many vegetarian ones as well. The main reason for this, says Makonnen, is fasting.
“Religion is important in Ethiopia, and many Ethiopians are Orthodox Christians, which means they fast—no meat, no dairy, no butter—for about 150 days a year,” he says.
The vegetarian dishes are commonly eaten during fasting days, he says. But don’t think that means Ethiopian vegetarian meals are austere.
At Sheba, the vegetarian sampler, served on a 16-inch circular tray and meant to be shared—is a standout. The sampler includes yellow split pea stew; red lentil stew; potatoes, carrots and cabbage; simmered collard greens; ground shiro beans in a sauce; and a cool tomato and pepper salad.
The sampler is served with injera—a spongy, pancake-like bread, ideal for sopping up the juices from the stews. Made with both wheat and teff, an iron-rich Ethiopian grain, the injera is gray and tangy. It is both an accompaniment to the meal and an eating utensil.
Sheba has its injera delivered fresh daily, although Makonnen says he hopes to eventually make it in house.
Any of Sheba’s meat dishes—such as tibs (lamb sautéed with onion, pepper, garlic, and tomatoes) or key wot (a savory, tangy, dish of stewed beef with a spice-and-herb mixture called berbere)—would be a good accompaniment to the sampler. The key wot is served with a bland-but-cooling homemade cheese that marries well with the intensity of the stew.
Sheba offers both Western and traditional Ethiopian seating at the small round basket-table called a mesob. Its small, low stools are quite comfortable. The restaurant has a full bar, but does not serve dessert.
“Ethiopians are not that big on sweets,” Makonnen says.
Sheba does offer Ethiopian coffee and Ethiopian honey wine called peg to end your meal, however.
In addition, Sheba’s customers will soon be able to dine with the queen and her regal cohort. Makonnen says he plans to offer outdoor, mural-side seating on Clinton St. or Foster Ave. with tables and mesobs as soon as possible.
Sheba is located at 3301 Foster Ave., 443-682-7618.