Demera – Chicago’s “Best Ethiopian Restaurant” Holds Its Own

// by Margeaux Perkins //

Demera Ethiopian Restaurant, located in Uptown, boasts the title “Chicago’s Best Ethiopian Restaurant” on its website. Michelin-rated from 2008-2013, the authentic Ethiopian eatery vaunts a colorful and creative assortment of traditional African foods. Though the menu looks intimidating at first glance, it contains a key to the Ethiopian terms, and the majority of the dishes have extensive explanations of its contents. Having never eaten this type of cuisine before, I was sort of relieved to find that most of their dishes were meat, potatoes, and greens-based. What really made the dishes exotic was the extensive collection of spices and sauces. Combing through the site whilst making my Saturday night reservation, I was excited to taste for myself whether it deserved its “Chicago’s Best” title.

The Uptown hotspot was packed on the first Saturday night of Restaurant Week. I had made an 8:00 reservation for two and had a bit of a wait. Next to me, the host explained to two parties that the wait time would be half an hour. My companion and I glanced at the menu while servers zoomed past and tables full of young adults snapped photos of the various dishes.

Once we were settled in at a tiny table for two next to a small traditional African painting, I asked the waitress for the Restaurant Week menu and she graciously explained the options to us, pointing out the $44 “for two” deal of three courses and a bottle of wine. The atmosphere was loud and bustling. Sizzling plates were carried high over our heads and groups of five and six sat at large round tables, gulping down glasses of wine and feeding each other the flamboyant assortments of meat and veggies.

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T’ej
Photo by Margeaux Perkins

We started with a bottle of T’ej, an Ethiopian honey wine made in house. They had run out of bottles to serve the wine from, but the waitress promised us that a bottle served four full glasses. The liquid was two shades darker than that of a mimosa. It had a complicated sort of taste with no distinct smell (the honey was unnoticeable), but it had the consistency and slight sweetness of mead. The aftertaste was bitter like hops. On my last nip, I noticed a little mound of muddy brown sediment in the bottom of my glass.

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Beef Sambussa
Photo by Margeaux Perkins

For our appetizer we ordered the beef Sambussa, which sounds and looks like the Indian Samosa. The three flaky pastries were served with a brown sauce that truly completed the dish. It was sweet and savory with a deliciously spicy and strangely unexpected aftertaste. The pastry was made in a wonton-like wrapper that managed to flake more than a samosa but wasn’t greasy like a traditional fried wonton. The minced prime beef was savory; the sautéed onions, bell peppers, and mix of spices were intense but not overpowering. Without the brown sauce, the pastry was warm and the seasonings seemed muted.

As we ate, my guest explained a bit about messob. Messob is a communal dining experience in Ethiopia during which you receive relatively large portions of the items you choose. I learned that one is never to feed themselves but are to feed the people they are dining with. One thing I did know going in was that in Ethiopian cuisine, there are no utensils.

Our options for the main course were six vegetarian items or a combination of three vegetarian and three meat items. Naturally, we chose the second. This platter included:

  • Gomen, a piquant combination of collard greens, onions, garlic, and ginger
  • Quosta, chopped spinach with special Demera seasoning
  • Ye-Dinich ena Carrot Alicha, a sweet mix of potatoes and carrots
  • Ye-Beg Wot with Fitfit, lamb in spicy Demera sauce
  • Ye-Siga Wot with Fitfit, beef with berbere sauce
  • Kitfo, Ethiopian steak tartar ordered tere (raw) with ayib cheese

Due to the wait, our server waived the fee typically charged for the specialty meats (ones served with Demera or berbere sauce). This colorful assortment was served on a giant flat piece of Injera, an incredibly strange-looking sponge bread. It was rolled up in a basket on the side to be eaten with the meat and vegetables. It is a very sour-tasting flatbread that oftentimes overpowered the Messob items. After trying several of the items only to taste the Injera, I realized you should grab the item with the Injera and put the item itself on your tongue first, tasting the Injera second.

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Photo by Margeaux Perkins

I began with the Yen-Dinich ena Carrot Alicha, which was served in a yellow sauce that reminded me of curry. The taste was sweet with a hint of spices and went well with the sour-tasting Injera. Second was the Kitfo, which was incredibly dense in a thick red sauce that tasted zesty and bitter. The meat itself was delicate and went well with the ayib cheese, which was off-white and crumbly-looking but actually had the consistency of cottage cheese. Next I tried the Quosta, which went well with the Injera due to its own distinct sour taste. I love spinach, but found that the seasoning overpowered the simple mineral-like taste. I preferred the Gomen: slightly bitter and soaked in a runny sort of jalapeño juice. It had its own distinct taste and was better without the Injera. As for the meats, the Ye-Beg Wot was not spicy as the menu indicated but was extremely tender. It was a simple and delectable complement to the sour Injera. The Ye-Siga Wot was delicate and fiery with a perfect balance of seasonings. My date and I agreed that our favorites were the Yen-Dinich ena Carrot Alicha and the Ye-Beg Wot. Ye-Siga Wot and Gomen were the runners-up.

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Sambussa Turnovers
Photo by Margeaux Perkins

We finished off the evening with Sambussa Turnovers for dessert. Unlike the flaky wonton-like pastry we experienced with the beef Sambussa, we were served a doughier assortment of pastries. The presentation was beautiful but the pastry shell tasted undercooked and the variety of almonds, walnuts, cardamom, rose water, and saffron inside the pastry had a gritty texture. The aftertaste was something like incense but if eaten with a perfect balance of the raspberry sauce and whipped cream, the overall dish tasted semi-delicious.

Overall, the restaurant was cozy and the atmosphere was loud but entertaining. The service was excellent; our waitress was kind and our water glasses were always full. We were checked on quite often despite the fact that the restaurant was packed. We left with a doggy-bag full of half the main course even though we arrived at the restaurant starving. I would suggest you take three or four people and split the $44 dinner menu. Though the dinner and dessert might be spread a little thin, you’ll probably end up stuffed halfway through the main course. I will say that their Restaurant Week menu was a steal. What would’ve been an $85 meal, we got for about $55 including tax and tip. As we left the warm restaurant for the snowy winter outside, I wondered about their title as “Chicago’s Best Ethiopian Restaurant”. Having never experienced this kind of cuisine, I really enjoyed myself. The food was delightful and I’ve always enjoyed eating with my hands. The whole experience was exciting and I was constantly surprised by the delicate blend of spices and seasonings contained in each dish. Until I experience another Ethiopian restaurant, I think Demera’s title is well deserved.

Overall Rating: 8.5

Service: 10
Atmosphere: 8.5

Food Overall: 8
Wine: 7.5
Appetizer: 9
Main Course: 7.5
Dessert: 7

Demera Ethiopian Restaurant
Neighborhood Uptown
Address 4801 N Broadway St, Chicago, IL 60640
Phone (773) 334-8787
Hours Su-Th 11:00 AM – 10:00 PM  F-Sa 11:00 AM – 11:00 PM
Price Range $16 – $30
Other Messob style dining, or the traditional Ethiopian communal dining experience, is available.
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