If Mela Bistro's tagline "Modern Ethiopian Cuisine" has you imagining tibs tacos, kitfo nachos, and injera-wrapped burritos, you've got the wrong idea.
Instead, many of the modern touches that chef Adiam Tsegaye adds to her food are subtle. She substitutes a lightly fried spinach tortilla for the deep fried spring roll wrappers typically used for sambusas; her ginger-infused cabbage replaces green cabbage with sweeter, crisper purple cabbage; and she cooks her vegetables with a lighter touch, preferring an al dente texture. And though she uses grass-fed lamb and beef for her tibs and relies primarily on organic produce, Tsegaye argues it's actually more typical in her native Ethiopia to use organic produce from the market rather than produce grown with pesticides purchased from grocery stores — a privilege usually reserved for the elite.
Creativity is nothing new in Tsegaye's kitchen. During her childhood in Asmara and Addis Ababa, Tsegaye loved to watch her mother in the kitchen preparing and blending her own spices from scratch, then adding unusual twists to her food. That's where Tsegaye got her passion for cooking, and she went on to attend culinary school in Italy and the United States. That influence shows in the way she plates her food, but also in the fact that she offers a selection of appetizers and desserts — courses she says aren't traditionally found in Ethiopian cuisine.
One of the appetizers is double-baked chicken wings marinated in awaze sauce, a thick, deep red condiment made from the smoky-spicy Ethiopian spice blend berbere that lent just a whisper of heat to the wings. But the standout was the aioli dipping sauce. It was made entirely from scratch with egg yolks the way Tsegaye's mother taught her, and flavored with ginger and berbere for an effect that was simultaneously warming and cooling. It's the same dipping sauce you'll find alongside the lentil-stuffed, spinach tortilla-wrapped sambusas, an appetizer that's typically served at many other Ethiopian restaurants in Oakland alongside awaze sauce.
Ethiopians might tend to favor injera over pita, but the warm, toasty triangles of pita paired well with the Ethiopian hummus, made with berbere and red bell peppers for a rich, brick-red color. The hummus was thick yet pleasantly fluffy in texture, with a just-right balance of olive oil and lemon juice.
A hearty yellow lentil soup came artfully presented in an asymmetrical ceramic bowl, giving the illusion the soup might spill out over the edges. The soup reminded me of a slightly thinner version of the yellow split pea stew you'd find on a veggie combo. The recipe is mostly traditional, Tsegaye said, but with the addition of fire-roasted corn kernels that burst with sweetness and turmeric for a sharper, more vibrant flavor.
The most unusual main course I encountered at Mela was the duba wot, a spicy, thick, berbere-laden stew made with sweet orange squash. It's a dish that Tsegaye says lots of diners raise an eyebrow at — squash in Ethiopian cuisine? Is it "authentic?" Though I've never seen it offered at any other restaurants in the area, Tsegaye said it's a common dish in Northern Ethiopia.
As far as I'm concerned, it's a must order. The sweet squash paired perfectly with the spicy berbere. It's the kind of heat that creeps up gently — not sharp or burning on the tongue, but the kind that'll make your nose run a little as if you'd eaten a steaming bowl of soup. Scoop it up with the spongy injera, fluffier and less sour than most, and always made with 100 percent teff flour — something that's usually reserved for customers willing to pay an extra upcharge. Cool off with bites of the sweet, cold, and refreshing beet and potato salad served on the side.
Another unconventional dish was the mushroom kitfo, a vegan variation on the Ethiopian dish that's often compared to steak tartare. Tsegaye didn't invent mushroom kitfo — she said it's often prepared in the states as a vegan alternative to eat during the nearly 60 days of Lent observed by Christian Orthodox Ethiopians. But Mela is one of the few restaurants in the area that serves it.
Much like steak tartare, the mushrooms were minced along with fresh, bright green Serrano peppers and Ethiopian spices for a seriously spicy kick. The whole mix gets molded into a cylinder, and like all the other entrees comes with your choice of starch: injera, turmeric rice, couscous, pita, or quinoa. I chose quinoa, a nubby, red variety that paired well with the tender mushrooms.
A section of the menu is devoted to seafood dishes. The asa wot, also called fish goulash on the menu, was made with flaky wild-caught cod that added subtle flavor to the stew of tomato and onions. The shrimp tibs came in a nearly identical tomato and onion sauce, so I wouldn't order both at the same time — but the shrimp added a slightly sweeter dimension to the stew.
The rest of the menu, though more conventional than the other dishes, was solidly executed. The quality of the meat was apparent in the lamb tibs, made with grass-fed lamb that was tender and almost floral in flavor. Even when requested spicy, the sauce, made with ginger, garlic, onions, and rosemary, managed not to overpower the lamb.
I also loved the chicken and mushrooms, a more delicately spiced dish with wilted tomatoes and onion for natural sweetness. It's also hard to go wrong with the vegetarian platter, which varies from day to day depending on what's fresh. When I visited, it included standard-issue collard greens, red and yellow lentils, and a carrot-green bean-onion mixture, plus an exceptionally good velvety orange shiro (chickpea stew), outstanding gingered purple cabbage, and more of that refreshing beet salad.
Dessert is a reminder of how unique Mela Bistro is. Prior to opening Mela, Tsegaye spent several years selling her own line of gluten-free, teff-based products including teff cookies, teff pancake mix, and her signature teff chocolate cake, which she created for her son who can't eat dairy or wheat products. The teff chocolate cake offered on Mela's dessert menu had none of the sourness of injera — the teff provided just a hint of nuttiness and a light texture. The cocoa flavor was assertive yet not overwhelming. Combined with the vegan whipped cream and vegan Bavarian cream, it reminded me of a lighter, airier version of tiramisu. The name "Mela" means solution, Tsegaye said. And in her restaurant, she's found not only a solution for her guests' various dietary needs and preferences, but a solution for her constant desire to express creativity in food.