I didn't think twice about asking three women to join me for dinner at the three-month-old Elsa's Ethiopian Restaurant last week. And, honestly, it never occurred to me that because two of them are professional interior designers, they might have opinions on the restaurant's décor.
As it turned out, Jan and Carol Ann had more than opinions. They had suggestions for Elsa herself, and before the end of the meal, they had convinced her to turn off the row of fluorescent lights at the center of the ceiling. It was a good idea. Those lights are so intense that the dining room can seem as brutally illuminated as a police station. Elsa turned them off, and we all found the smaller lights at the edge of the room perfectly fine.
"Isn't this nicer?" Jan asked as we resumed eating in the dusky light, the room now more intimate. She had more ideas to share. "Now you need candles," she told Elsa. "And take these awful fake flowers off the table."
The restaurant's owner and namesake, Ethiopian-born Elsa Michaels, listened patiently with her beautiful daughter, Mimi, while I cringed. My interior-design friends are hopelessly pushy. I have to be careful even inviting Carol Ann into my home, lest she set about rearranging all my furniture. "The feng shui is all wrong," she'll tell me. "You need flow — lots of flow!"
This rectangular storefront in downtown Overland Park could use, if not a bit of flow, some individuality and character. For starters, the sign of the former tenant — this was once home to Carl's Hair Salon — is still bolted to the outer wall of the building. Elsa's is a clean, well-lighted place with uncloaked tables, comfortable banquettes, and an expanse of cream-colored walls that beg for artwork or mirrors or something.
This isn't Elsa Michaels' first restaurant rodeo. A few years ago, she operated a different Ethiopian restaurant in Lenexa, the Abyssinia, at 78th Street and Quivira. The rent was high, Michaels says, and the location wasn't ideal. She's much happier with the Overland Park building, along a busy stretch. "It has better visibility," she says. "People pass by all the time." It's probably easier for passing motorists to see that her restaurant is open when the fluorescent lights are on. But she agreed — at least that night — that she didn't want her patrons to look like zombies as they nibbled on vegetable sambosas or beef tibs.
With or without interior décor, the dining room has an air of festivity, thanks to the music played over the sound system: a bouncy Ethiopian jazz soundtrack. "It's like American jazz," our server explained, "but with a kink." The music is about as kinky as Elsa's gets. There's a bar in one corner of the dining room, but Michaels hasn't gotten her beer and wine license yet. She'll eventually serve chilled honey wine with her simple, homey cuisine. Homey for Addis Ababa, anyway.
The Michaels family arrived in Kansas City from Ethiopia's capital city in 1996. "We won the visa lottery," Michaels says. "We wanted to give our children a better life."
Elsa and Haile Michaels' four children ranged in age from 6 to 16 when they settled here. They are now University of Kansas graduates. "They all help out a little in the restaurant," says Elsa, who has been cooking Ethiopia's signature dishes — tibs and wats — since she was a girl.
She's a good cook. The menu at Elsa's isn't elaborate, but the most familiar dishes of her native country are prepared according to her customers' wishes. So the food's spiciness can be scaled back to suburban mildness. I prefer sassier versions of the sautéed and stewed Ethiopian meat dishes, most of which are seasoned with the spice mixture berbere, a seductive blend of garlic, red peppers, coriander, cardamom, fenugreek and cinnamon. The doro wat — chicken stew — that I sampled one night was punchy and lively rather than refill-the-water-glass fiery.
For religious reasons, you won't find pork or shellfish on the menu at Elsa's. Until recently, there was a whole fried fish available, but it has been replaced with a hunk of fresh tilapia, marinated in spices and then cubed and sautéed. That's the only unexpected entrée among the chicken, beef, spuds and grains.
Elsa's is a good spot for a group with mixed dining needs. I was in the restaurant one night with two meat eaters and one vegetarian, and we shared two generous — and very inexpensive — platters. The meat and vegetarian combos, each served with a spongy, house-made injera bread, allow enough tasting opportunities for several diners.
The meats on combo No. 1 should be familiar to anyone who has tasted Ethiopian food before in Kansas City: the mahogany doro wat, spooned over a hard-boiled egg; the buttery key wat beef stew, fragrant with ginger and garlic; and the sautéed-beef concoction called alicha wat, flecked with fresh herbs. There's a spoonful of miser wat — spicy red lentils — and simmered collard greens on the meat platter, too, to complement the spicy beef. The meat and the tart greens are particularly delicious folded into a sheath of injera and eaten together.
For a group that's doing as much talking as eating, these platters work as well as an array of tapas: different tastes and textures that can be nibbled leisurely with a cold drink. (The place remained booze-free on my visits, so my tablemates and I sipped a cinnamon-spiced iced tea.)
On another night, I brought along a friend who couldn't be persuaded to sample the boiled potatoes in spicy berbere sauce (wonderful) or the simmered cabbage called tiki gomen. The foods from ancient Abyssinia held no fascination for him, and he was scandalized by the lack of flatware. "You mean you eat with your hands?" he asked. "I can't. I won't."
There's a pasta dish on Elsa's menu that can be prepared with or without meat. It's served with a fork, and it's good. Like everything else here, it's somehow better by candlelight.