Summary: Ethiopian food made with fresh ingredients in an adult atmosphere.
Californian cuisine, with its emphasis on fresh, often locally produced ingredients and minimalist preparations, has a way of seeping into cuisines of all kinds, at least as presented by Bay Area restaurants. There is hardly a restaurant in the area that serves classic French food; it's always Californian-French that you find even in such lofty establishments as The French Laundry. Californian-Italian reigns at places like Oliveto and Acquerello and Bay Wolf and a bunch of other local eateries will delight you with their Californian-Mediterranean food. Fusion and pan-Asian cuisines could just as easily be labeled Californian-Asian and really what's Dona Tomás but Californian-Mexican and Kokkari but Californian-Greek? As if that wasn't enough, now Finfiné, a small restaurant in Berkeley, brings to the masses its take on Californian-Ethiopian food. Mind you, that's not what they call it, "Finfiné Ethiopian Restaurant" is the official name. But if you look behind the traditional Amharic dish names and taste beyond the familiar berbere and spiced butter, you'll see that what we have here is a new animal: Ethiopian food cooked with a Californian attitude.
No buts about it, Finfiné's food looks and tastes fresher and of higher quality than what you'd expect at an Ethiopian restaurant and it offers a greater variety. Yes, you can get kitfo and doro tibs here, but also several seafood dishes including goord-asa tibs, sea bass sauteed in olive oil with jalapeno chilies. How more Californian can you get? Dishes are priced from $10.50 to $13, making it considerably more expensive than other Ethiopian restaurants and effectively pricing it out of the college student market. Indeed, when we went on a Friday night in May 2005, there were no students there; the clientele was clearly older and quieter. The little restaurant itself is pretty small, with understated yellow walls and Ethiopian prints hanging on the wall - it has none of the exoticness of the Blue Nile but it's a welcoming atmosphere nonetheless. It's located in The Village, that little outdoor mall on Telegraph that also houses Fondue Fred's, a nice location to eat with a small baby that may need a walk during dinner.
Finfiné's menu is more extensive than most Ethiopian restaurants but it doesn't offer any meat combinations. That's a pity because that's our favorite way to order at Ethiopian restaurants so we can taste a little of everything and not get bored too easily. A vegetarian combo is offered, which includes split pea stew, lentil salad, split pea red lentil stew, collard greens, potato/carrot and chick peas. That's what our friend Regina ordered and she was pleased with all of it, again remarking on how everything tasted quite fresh. I wanted something I could share with my three-year-old, so I decided on the ye-doro tibs, a chicken stew, which was not marked as being spicy. Unfortunately it was spicy, not overly so, but enough for our daughter to declare it spicy and refuse to eat it. The chicken was boneless and cubed, and I thought it was too salty and a bit on the sour side. Mike and Boris liked it better. Boris ordered the salmon tibs and he liked them quite a bit as well. Mike, at my insistence, decided to be daring and ordered a beef jerky fitfit (injera stew) which can be described as "interesting." The beef jerky was very tough and difficult to chew, though fortunately it was cut into small pieces; its consistency was surprising at every bite, you just don't expect to be able to eat something like that. Beyond that, it tasted like most Ethiopian dishes, and it was quite spicy. The dishes, which were served family style, came with a lettuce and tomato salad, potatoes and collard greens. There was no rice, sour cream or anything else to help ease the spiciness of the dishes.
I ordered a glass of honey wine which I liked; it wasn't very sweet and mostly reminded me of a European alcoholic apple cider.
Service was competent and polite and we were able to get extra injera whenever we needed it.
In all, we liked Finfiné, my dinner companions more than I, though everyone ranked it below their favorite Ethiopian restaurant. I'm not sure if I'd go again - I still have several Ethiopian restaurants to try - but you may want to give it a try.
2556 Telegraph Ave
Berkeley, CA 94705