Ethiopian food is still enough of a novelty in Richmond that when a waitress seats you at Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant in Shockoe Bottom, she asks if this is your first visit and if you've ever tried this kind of cuisine.
That's a change for chef and partner Negash Shifraw, who previously co-owned a restaurant called Abiti that was clustered with about 10 eateries in a neighborhood dubbed "Little Ethiopia" along Washington's U Street corridor.
Shifraw moved to Richmond in January to join longtime friend and fellow Ethiopia native Dilnessaw Bitew in running Sheba, which Bitew opened two years ago at 9 N. 17th St. Bitew owns another business, Richmond Parking Inc., so Shifraw is the one who's in the restaurant most of the time.
"Usually in Ethiopia, women are cooks," Bitew says. "But Negash is the best cook."
Since Shifraw's arrival in Richmond, Sheba has expanded its vegetarian menu items. (He rarely eats meat; Bitew, on the other hand, says, "I eat anything.") Sheba's specialties include dishes such as beef, chicken or shrimp cooked in awaze sauce, which Shifraw prepares blending a base of berbere (dried red chili powder mixed with other spices and herbs) with wine, butter, garlic, ginger and onions. Bitew also points out that the cheese used in the katenya appetizer is made in-house.
Entrées at Sheba arrive in piles atop a layer of flat, spongy injera bread arranged on a round platter to be shared by the table. Separate rolls of injera (which is gluten-free) are torn apart and used to scoop up the food — no forks necessary. Culturally, eating from a single platter promotes family closeness, Shifraw says. "Everybody has to eat together."