Since she and her sister opened Sheba Piano Lounge on Fillmore in 2006, Netsanet Alemayehu has created a distinctive ambiance with a sophisticated design, live music and a menu offering authentic Ethiopian dishes.
Much of what makes the food special is the spices — the cardamom, berbere, mitmita and oregano — Alemayehu imports in suitcases with the help of her family in Ethiopia. “It’s the same, only different,” she says of Ethiopian oregano. “It makes a lot of difference in the taste.”
Now Alemayehu has branched out and started selling the spices — and incorporating them into new cocktails and small plates.
“It’s nearly impossible to find a lot of the Ethiopian staple spices in San Francisco,” she says. “People have been asking for them. Since I get so many rare things directly from my family in Addis Ababa, I thought it was a good idea to sell them to the public so it’s easier for home chefs to create Ethiopian dishes.”
If you don’t want to do it yourself, Sheba is now offering a new lounge menu and cocktail menu that incorporate traditional Ethiopian spices. On the cocktail list, for instance, is the Selassie, a rye whiskey cocktail with house-made Ethiopian bitters. “I mix it and let it go for a month,” Alemayehu says. There’s also an Ethiopian espresso martini made with fresh muddled Ethiopian cardamom pods. And then there’s the Red Sea — an Ethiopian Bloody Mary — with mitmita, a spicy mix made with crushed African birds-eye chili peppers, substituting for Tabasco.
On the new lounge menu are dishes that meld Ethiopian and California influences such as pomegranate meatballs with blue cheese, a hamburger and spicy fries sprinkled with mitmita and a salad with pickled beets, walnuts and “Net’s vinaigrette” seasoned with Ethiopian oregano. Or you can have a full Ethiopian dinner and eat it with your hands the way the Ethiopians do.
Alemayehu made a name for herself locally with her first restaurant, Sheba, in Oakland. She’d come to the Bay Area entirely by happenstance in 1975 after meeting a visitor from Oakland while working at the Hilton in Addis Ababa. They became fast friends and the woman offered Alemayehu a room in her home if she wanted to come to California to further her education.
She seized the opportunity and got a degree from San Jose State University.
Food was Alemayehu’s passion. She’d helped with her mother’s catering business back in Ethopia, where the culture revolved around food. “In Ethiopia, holidays weren’t about gifts, they were about food,” she says. “I loved to cook since I was a little girl.”
For most of the 1980s, she ran Sheba on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. Her mother began shipping spices and sauce bases so she could recreate authentic family recipes. Despite its success, she gave up the restaurant when the city continued to deny the liquor license that seemed essential for the restaurant’s growth.
She found considerable business success elsewhere, but missed the food world. The perfect pathway for her return appeared in 2001 when she took over the kitchen and bar at Rasselas, the jazz club and Ethiopian restaurant that had relocated from California and Divisadero to become a pioneer in the nascent Fillmore Jazz District. Rasselas was run by Agonofer Shiferaw, a fellow Ethiopian immigrant who had frequented Sheba restaurant.
Working at Rasselas reignited her spirit and determination to have her own restaurant. The promise of the jazz district made Fillmore seem like the right place to do it. She and her sister Israel decided to take over one of the long-vacant spaces in the Fillmore Center and create the Sheba Piano Lounge. It opened in 2006, just before Yoshi’s opened and the dream of a revived jazz district took flight.
“It’s really changing,” Alemayehu says of Fillmore south of Geary. “It’s very positive. But we still need more things to draw more people.”
She’s doing her part by offering a women in jazz series on Monday nights — appropriate for a club named after the powerful Queen of Sheba. On Tuesday nights there’s a special on Ethiopian vegetarian platters. And now she’s started a late night “red-eye special,” which has become a magnet for restaurant people who stop by after they’ve finished their dinner shifts. “Our happy hour starts late,” she says — 10 to closing on weeknights, 11 to closing on weekends.
Despite all the changes to Sheba’s menu, Alemayehu says the traditional Ethiopian vegetarian platter remains the favorite. “Except with the Ethiopians,” she laughs. “They’re meat eaters.”
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