Even though most people will tell you that Ethiopia and Eritrea share a single cuisine, I was planning to be thorough and visit an Eritrean AND an Ethiopian restaurant. I picked Asmarino (the website proclaims: "Eritrean specialties") because it had a few good online reviews and was in the neighborhood (a big plus on a cold, rainy Sunday night). When we arrived, Asmarino seemed to have been replaced by (morphed into?) Abissinia, ("Ethiopian and Eritrean specialties," according to the sign). It was cold and wet and we decided to venture in and find out which cuisine was really being served.
The DC area had a sizable Ethiopian population when I was growing up and going for Ethiopian food was always a treat. I don't remember ever having Eritrean food, but this may have something to do with the fact that Eritrea was part of Ethiopia until 1993. I may well have eaten Eritrean food when it was still called Ethiopian food. Poking around the internet (my Eritrean cookbook is, of course, an ocean away), it seems that even most Eritreans and Ethiopians believe that they share one cuisine. (I should also point out that Somali and Djiboutian cuisine has a lot in common with that of Ethiopia/Eritrea). Some people suggest that Eritrean food is more lightly spiced and/or uses more tomatoes. You find this kind of regional variation in just about any cuisine (and in some places, in any neighborhood), though; it's not really suggestive of two distinct cuisines. I have also heard that Eritrean food uses more seafood, which is only logical as Eritrea has a whole lot of coastline while Ethiopia has none. As a fan of Eritrean/Ethiopian cuisine, I think eating at a bunch of Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants (or better yet, eating across Eritrea and Ethiopia) and seeing what kind of regional differences exist would be a very good time. That, however, is a whole other blog. If you really need to know whether a restaurant is Ethiopian or Eritrean, there is one trick. At a restaurant run by Eritreans the menu will probably be in Tigrinya, while one run by Ethiopians will use Amharic. Thus, whether you call it tsebhi dorho (Tigrinya) or doro wat (Amharic), it's a chicken stew spiced with berbere/berberē and tesmi/niter kibbeh (a regional spice blend and spiced clarified butter).
While relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia have never been particularly good, the people behind Abissinia seem to have worked things out and the restaurant is by all measures, an Eritrean-Ethiopian place. The front of the house is run by a very nice Eritrean woman, the chef is Ethiopian, and the menu is bilingual. The food at Abissinia is good, but it's not mind-blowing. We were the only customers the entire time we were eating and this may have been reflected in the food. At least one of the dishes could have been a little fresher -- just a few tough, obviously old, green beans, nothing too dramatic, but....it does make you wonder. I was very happy to get a decent number of injera (the spongy, sour flat bread essential to this cuisine). I ate at Massai a couple years ago and remember being rationed a single piece (making it difficult to eat as it is also acting as your plate). In the end, while Abissinia didn't quite measure up to the Ethiopian food I've eaten in DC, I love the complex flavors of this cuisine and would probably return to Abissinia (in large part because it's walking distance from my apartment - I probably wouldn't trek across town for it). I will, however, cross the Ocean to visit my Eritrean cookbook at some point and Ethiopian/Eritrean food is on my list (along with pupusas and a Cuban sandwich and.....).