April 14, 2024

Building Unique Homes

Crafting Homes, Building Dreams

The reopening of Meals by Genet’s dining room is a gift to L.A.

4 min read

If asked to name from memory one element in the small dining room of Meals by Genet — the Little Ethiopia restaurant that chef-owner Genet Agonafer reopened last month for customer seating after a nearly four-year hiatus, during which she focused on takeout — I would bring up the big, wood-framed mirror that hangs behind the bar.

It serves a design function, bouncing butterscotch lighting and creating an illusion of added depth, but there’s always been something particularly wonderful about the mirror’s angle. It tilts away from the wall from the top, at just the right slant so its reflection captures the breadth of the whole space. Before the pandemic I would always make sure to sit facing the bar, built near the kitchen, so I could watch the doubled images of diners crowding around tables covered with white tablecloths.

They sipped honey wine. They tore off spongy pieces of injera to scoop up sauced meats and textured vegetables. Everyone lingered, because the food encouraged careful considerations of last great bites, and because the atmosphere had a snug Parisian quality that’s rare in Los Angeles.

A happy return to the dining room

Last weekend, back in Agonafer’s haven, it was as if time had rewound. The same feeling had survived and rekindled. The room stayed packed for hours. Injera-lined platters again filled tables overlaid with linens.

There was the bar mirror, exactly as Agonafer had mounted it 24 years ago when she opened the restaurant. I took in other art I hadn’t remembered as well. A sinuous sculpture of Mary cradling baby Jesus, made by Ethiopian artist Bereket Mamo. Drawings of Agonafer with her grandchildren sketched by her friend John Lewis.

Genet Agonafer next to a sculpture of Mary and baby Jesus made by Ethiopian artist Bereket Mamo.

Genet Agonafer next to a sculpture of Mary and baby Jesus made by Ethiopian artist Bereket Mamo.

(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Most of all, the cooking mesmerized. I don’t even need to say that meals served straight from a chef’s hands hit differently than when they’ve sat steaming in carry-out boxes. Most of us who prize Agonafer’s precise, lovingly prepared dishes didn’t think we’d ever experience them in the same way again. But last month she told my colleague Stephanie Breijo that, after her decision to pursue a takeout model in 2020 and an initial rush of orders, demand had lagged. Reopening the dining room several nights a week seemed the soundest way forward to salvage her business while still leaving time in her schedule for family.

Meals by Genet is open again for dining Friday through Sunday. Make reservations the old-fashioned way, by calling the restaurant. Her strategy seems to be working: Agonafer says she’s booked 90% of the time, so the chances for walk-ins are slim.

It was a pleasure to share dinner with a 19-year-old and her mother, both of whom had never tried Ethiopian food before. They marveled at the specific squish of the injera, delivered as elegantly as ever. Longtime staffers Olivier Hoarau and Anthony Walker invited us to pluck the folded bread from trays they held out moments before delivering our order.

What to order

Agonafer’s menu has always been concise. Its centerpiece was, and remains, doro wat. She simmers her painstaking version of the celebratory chicken stew for two days, stirring frequently until the consistency resembles the smoothest, shiniest mole negro. Intricate spices meld into an indistinguishable whole. Eating it can be like rereading a favorite poem, familiar but forever capable of new meaning.

Vegetables hold different but equal importance. Agonafer has been vegan for years now: There’s a clarity to the flavors in her color wheel of pureed lentils and split peas, chopped greens, turmeric-stained cabbage and carrots and lemony beets. Ask for the vegetable combination and she arranges tidy piles around the edges of the platter. Each is a satisfying contrast to the rich doro wat and the buttery kitfo (finely ground steak tartare) rife with tickling spices. I’m also fond of the yebegsisga alitcha — garlicky stewed lamb with a hum of green chile.

A round plate covered with brown flat bread with dollops of vegetables and a dish of doro wat in the center

Vegetarian combo with doro wot at Meals by Genet.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Everyone at my table insisted on the warm chocolate chip cookies for dessert. Agonafer buys them from DeLuscious Cookies and Milk, which has cracked the code on a gooey vegan and gluten-free cookie. I had one little corner. I was stuffed with injera.

Agonafer and her cooking are well-recognized civic treasures, and her takeout phase never deterred our admiration. Laurie Ochoa named her the recipient of the Gold Award in 2022; last year I put Meals by Genet in our 101 Best Restaurants Hall of Fame guide, reserved for places that transcend to the status of modern classic.

She’s still offering food to go as well, but now that we have the opportunity to enjoy her cooking in the spirit and hospitality in which it was originally intended? Call for a table, settle into the room’s soft glow, order generously with a group and, in the middle of a buzzing evening, glance up at the bar mirror to again take in a one-of-a-kind reflection of Los Angeles.

1053 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 938-9308, mealsbygenetla.com

Also …

 Three oxtail tacos, with shredded kale, on a rectangular blue-gray plate.

Oxtail tacos made by chef Alisa Reynolds, the owner of My 2 Cents in Pico-Robertson.

(Silvia Razgova / For The Times)

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