Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ethiopian Food and Authentic Jazz and Blues

We heard that the place to go for impromptu and live jazz ANY night of the week was Culver City’s Industry Café. Supposedly you could order authentic Ethiopian food, honey mead wine and get your groove on simultaneously so we met there on a Wednesday night to check out the scene.

A simple menu offered Southern-style soul food like fried chicken and catfish and candied yams alongside more authentic East African items. Although we started out sitting at the slim bar in the cramped house, the moment a table front and center of the stage opened up, we were offered it with great hospitality.

While the band in front of us tooted some blues, including a wild bongo player less than a foot from our feet, we opted for the East African specialties: a vegetable platter and a meat dish.

The band started out with a senior drummer with a soulful face full of sagging jowls and hands that wielded drumsticks like an old and lovable hound dog. The sax player slouched in a chair and fell asleep a little between his moments of waking up and throwing out a bellowing salute with a smile. A woman on the keyboard, dressed in full Christmas light regalia expertly played back up notes for a young guitarist in front on a stool in a striped cap and Chucks tennis shoes. Everyone was totally moving on stage, in the seats, on the sides of the room and every few minutes another person with an instrument would enter the door to sit around and contribute a few chords or a blast of sound when they felt duly inspired throughout the course of the evening. Just my kind of scene: real music, real people, real passion and no formal program with some awesome food thrown in. My hips and feet were bouncing the entire time beneath the table. 

The cool thing is that when you order they ask you if you want all the food together on one plate, which I think is essential to the experience. All of the food arrives on top of traditional Injera, a large pancake like piece of yeast-risen flatbread that is super spongy and is meant to be used like a tool for scooping up bits of the food to eat. No forks or spoons necessary here. The bread helps you eat and then becomes a flavorful end bite in which all the flavors of the meal harmoniously blend. 

 The vegetarian platter consisted of Atkilt Alicha, which is a sweet pile of vegetable white including carrots, potatoes, cabbage and green beans cooked with turmeric and special seasonings. A red lentil scoop of Misir Wot wonderfully resembled refried beans a bit in taste and the collard greens were my favorite of the meal, with their buttery sweetness and al dente onion strings.

Meat portion was an enormous pile of Kitfo, which is basically raw spicy beef, served room temperature rounded out in flavor by subtle chili and lemon spices from a mellow marinade. Really good mixed with everything else or alone, savored in single bites.

Before we knew it, we were in the middle of a huge birthday party of some of the regular musicians that frequent the joint and all levels of madness ensued. A chanteuse singing with gyrating hips, a ventriloquist, and even the tap dancing man who was the choreographer of Gregory Hines in the movie Taps all took turns at the mike. Cake was passed around and everyone in the place was invited to share in the festivities. While leaving, I realized the party was one of those that could easily last into the wee hours of night and that was just the kind of strange and random mix, I like to be privy to every once in while – those magical real slices of individual life that can’t be duplicated or forced.

This will definitely be a place I return to every once in a while for comfort food nights with live blues. 

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