That monopoly will end next month when Zoma Ethiopian Restaurant
opens on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights. The business is being opened by Zeleke Belete, a resident of Shaker Heights who was born in that African country.
“In other big cities, Ethiopian food is as popular as Chipotle,” Belete explains. “I want to bring that kind of thing to Cleveland. I am originally from Ethiopia and I know a lot of other people who are looking to eat Ethiopian food. People these days are tired of eating pizza and burgers.”
After searching for the better part of a year to nail down a location, Belete settled on Cleveland Heights because of the east-side neighborhood’s proximity to diners, especially adventurous ones.
Ethiopian cuisine is characterized both by its unique flavors and its communal presentation, a family-style approach with multiple items arriving on a large platter. Vegetable, grain, meat and fish-based stews, some of which are spicy, are scooped up and eaten with small pieces of injera, a spongy flatbread made from fermented teff batter.
“I’m eager to share the food and how to eat it with people,” Belete says.
Doro wat, perhaps the most familiar dish, is a spicy chicken-based stew made with berbere, a fiery spice blend. Derek tibs, which Belete will serve in a crock over an open flame, is a flavorful beef stirfry with garlic, onion, tomato and rosemary. Many Ethiopian dishes are built around lentils, split peas, chick peas and greens, making them popular with vegetarians.
“When people think of African food they think of fufu and food from West Africa and Nigeria,” Belete says. “Our food is colorful. A lot of people when they see the food for the first time it opens their eyes.”
The restaurant will seat about 50 guests in a setting that features grass huts and other traditional design elements. It will be open seven days a week and will be an affordable option for those eager to sample Ethiopian food, the owner stresses.
“It will be family friendly,” he notes. “There are a lot of Ethiopians here, but they don’t all go out to eat."
Of course, Ethiopia has a storied coffee history and culture. Zoma will offer a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, a process that makes Third Wave seem rudimentary. Green coffee beans are roasted to order in a hot pan, ground, brewed and served from a clay vessel while incense smolders away in the background.
“Enjoying the aroma is part of the whole process,” he adds.
Zoma, which is named after a small village in the northern part of the country, will open in mid to late September.
Despite a sizeable Ethiopian contingent here in Northeast Ohio, there has been one and only one restaurant built specifically to cater to them and others eager to sample their cuisine. For 25 years, Empress Taytu (6125 St. Clair Ave., 216-391-9400) has had the Ethiopian restaurant game locked up tight.