Desta Ethiopian Kitchen

Desta Ethiopian Kitchen is a wonderful little restaurant. Located in a small plaza near the intersection of Briarcliff and Clairmont — in what's become a burgeoning area for Ethiopian businesses — it's at once worldly and homey, with attentive service and, best of all, delicious, bargain-priced vegetable, meat and fish dishes.

Of course, knowing that Ethiopian cuisine is centered around injera — the spongy bread that also serves as an eating utensil — may be a bit off-putting, even to some otherwise adventurous eaters. But the kitchen's elegant and easygoing approach to presenting its food, and the friendly staff's willingness to provide tableware for the timid, makes it a snap for almost anyone to enjoy a meal here.

Happy place

Desta is the Ethiopian word for happiness. Fittingly, on a recent evening the place exuded a lively sense of communal joy, echoed by a relaxing jazz soundtrack and scattered signs proclaiming positive aphorisms such as "Live, Laugh, Love." Blithe servers, dressed in black with jaunty red jabots, danced between the two intimate dining areas, where tables and booths were filled with convivial groups eating and drinking together. At the tiny nook of a bar, a small group of men engaged in lighthearted banter while sharing a bottle of wine.

Don't fear the injera

Injera is made with teff flour, which is gluten-free and packed with protein, calcium and iron. Traditionally, the flour is mixed with water and left to naturally ferment for several days. Then it's cooked, crepe-style, until bubbles appear on the top side. The grayish-tan variety, served up in neat rolls at Desta, has a mild, nutty flavor without much of a sourdough tinge. It's perfect for scooping and sopping up almost everything on the menu.

A good starting place is the vegetarian combo, beautifully presented on an oblong platter, with each dish arranged on a square of injera. Among the well-spiced offerings are bright sautéed collards with garlic and ginger, savory split pea stew, red lentils with chiles, green lentil salad, and a sort of Ethiopian-style panzanella consisting of torn bits of injera mixed with chopped tomatoes, peppers and onions.

While vegetables are the star of the show at Desta, meat eaters will find lots to like. Kifto — minced steak seasoned with chili powder and spiced butter — can be ordered raw, medium rare or well-done, or mixed with Ethiopian-style cottage cheese. Tibs are cubed meat and fish sautéed with spices, onions, tomatoes, peppers, and butter. The lamb tibs are tangy, salty and super tender. If you like heat, order this dish with awaze, a spicy red pepper paste. A simple chopped salad with romaine and olive oil and lemon dressing makes a palate-cleansing side.

Bar and breakfast

Desta has a full bar, with a small wine list and several Ethiopian beers, including Meta and St. George lager. For something different, try the Ethiopian honey wine, called tej, which comes in sweet or dry versions and is essentially a flavored mead.

If you're in need of early morning or late-night sustenance, there's also an anytime breakfast menu with the likes of foul (crushed beans and spices) and toast or steak and eggs.

Where: 3086 Briarcliff Road N.E., Atlanta
Signature dish: Vegetarian combo
Entree prices: $9-$23
Hours: 9 a.m.-midnight Mondays-Thursdays; 9 a.m.-1 a.m. Fridays- Sundays.
Reservations: No
Credit cards: Yes

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