By Laura Krisch Special |

When Haregewin Bekele opened Excellent Table in Blacksburg in 2007, it was just a kitchen and a counter for passing across freshly prepared Ethiopian food. Since then, a table spanning the front window and facing the farmers market square has been added, along with a small two-person table. But the focus is still on fresh, authentic food.When I arrived with a friend for an early dinner, Bekele was enjoying the evening air at one of the public tables outside the restaurant. She was quick to follow us in and explain the day’s offerings, as well as the ordering procedure. The menu changes from day to day, and pricing is based on how many main items you want, and whether you want enough food for one or two people.

As there were two of us, we ordered the Any Meat and Vegetable Combination for Two Adults ($20.99), which allowed us to choose any three entrees; it came with the day’s side dish. Every meal also comes with injera, a crepe-like bread, which is used in place of utensils for picking up bites of food. We chose the day’s meat special, lamb, a particular favorite of my dining companion ($2 extra), along with spicy lentils and vegetables as our entrees. Couscous salad was the side of the day.

While the interior of the restaurant does offer seating, the atmosphere is still rather tight, so we opted to take our meal to go. Opening the takeout box, we were treated to a fragrant spiced aroma and a generous serving of food resting on, and topped by, tender injera.

I started by using the injera to scoop up the rich, flavorful, and SPICY lentils (seriously … if hot is not your thing, you have been forewarned), with hints of what tasted like ginger, paprika and turmeric. The lamb was also rich and spicy, swimming in a thick sauce with a similar flavor profile to the lentils, and accompanied by potatoes. The meat itself was quite tender. Lamb is not my favorite, however, so while I appreciated the flavor objectively, I left most of the meat to my dining partner, who enjoyed it much more.

Vegetables consisted largely of cabbage, with some onion thrown in. Everything was well cooked and seasoned, and tasted of ginger, garlic and other aromatic spices.

By the end of the meal, we had used the injera both on top of and underneath the meal to sop up every last bit of food and sauce. The exception was one sad pile of couscous. I can see how the couscous, which was vinegary and tossed with dried cranberries, might serve to balance the spice and richness of the meal. And while the fluffy texture was well-executed, both my companion and I found the fruit and vinegar off-putting.

I returned for the lunch special, arriving to find Bekele making stir-fries on an outdoor grill. The choices of the day were stir-fry with vegetables only, or vegetables with chicken, beef or seafood. Sides of the day, included in the special, were vegetables or spicy lentils. I picked chicken and vegetables with a side of spicy lentils ($7.75), then sat at the window table and people-watched while I waited for my food.

In about 10 minutes, lunch was ready and I headed back to my office to dig in. Once again, the spices in the stir-fry were amazingly fragrant. The chicken was tender, and the eggplant and carrots were fresh and tasty. The spicy lentils were just as fabulous as before (I could eat a dangerous amount of those lentils, in fact). I scooped everything up with the injera and used my fingers to get the last of the lentils. Actually, I scooped almost everything up. Couscous was the side again. I gave it a second go, but still didn’t care for the flavor and abandoned it once again.

While Excellent Table offers only a couple of actual tables, it does offer wonderful Ethiopian cuisine. Bekele has mastered the art of spices, and her delightfully spongy injera makes for the best eating utensil. I’ll be stopping in again to sample her fragrant offerings, particularly those outstanding spicy lentils. They were excellent, indeed!

Source: The Roanoke Times
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