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Restaurants: Basket case

An Ethiopian owner sporting the Manchester United strip? Expect the unexpected at Mekasha, where the food is so good you'll want to eat the plate
I've eaten at four or five East African restaurants. I've always enjoyed the cuisine enough to want to return to it. All that the restaurants needed to make them more persuasive was a greater appearance of permanence and a little less of the lugubriousness, and the peculiar, unflattering blue lighting that was a feature common to most.

Mekasha, a six-month-old Ethiopian restaurant in Swiss Cottage, was thus unexpectedly exuberant. The owner had something to celebrate. Thirty years ago Bobby Charlton was his hero and he's remained loyal to Manchester United ever since. On a thundery evening in late May he was wearing his Man U strip with understandable pride. Nevertheless, it was a surprising greeting at what must be London's chicest Ethiopian restaurant.

The outside features a smart purple fascia painted with only a 75 - the way so many modern restaurants take their name from a street number - and there's nothing except the letter M etched on the window in cowrie shells to hint at ethnicity. Inside it was cool, predominantly white, with more modish purple, and populated by young professionals. The occasional visit from the kitchen to customers at a neighbouring table by a woman wearing a leopardskin pinnie was a reassuring sign that we could expect something close to home cooking, but may also have explained the length of time it took for the food to arrive.

There was no warm-up for myself and two companions in the form of starters, and while orders are being prepared the restaurant can't play for time by providing bread since this is what both the plate and cutlery are made of. This pancake-like "injera" is properly produced from teff, refined millet flour, mixed with water into a batter and fermented before being poured on to a griddle and covered with a damp cloth. The result is soft and spongey and oddly clammy. Similar to Scotch pancakes was one description; "like perished foam rubber" was another. Mekasha admits it has to substitute wheat flour for teff and the bread didn't have the sourness of the real thing. Some may consider that an advantage.

What you eat off and with injera are "wats" - thick, spicy-hot meat or vegetable stews, and "alecha" dishes which are more mildly flavoured with ginger, cardamom, nutmeg and tumeric. We ordered doro wat (chicken leg and boiled egg), lamb, asa tibs (grilled salmon), and a dish called azifa, lentils with onion, garlic, olive oil and mustard.

Then we drank Pinot Grigio rather than the more appropriate Ethiopian lager (which was being reordered), and waited. While one companion wondered whether a culture that practises fasting might be more relaxed about the time it takes to prepare food, I belatedly realised the blindingly obvious, that the point of starters is to take the edge off your hunger while you wait for the main course. My other companion then tried the oldest trick in the book for making overdue food appear immediately. You know, the one where you take out a cigarette and light it. Works a treat every time.

What she magically made appear was a wondrous meal in a basket. "And there I was thinking it was part of the interior decor," she said as a large, flat-bottomed, multi-coloured basket with a funnel-like top (above) was removed from the counter and brought to our table. The lid was lifted to reveal the bottom of the basket entirely covered with a lotus-flower like arrangement of injera, on to which was spooned the meat, fish and vegetables in a pretty, kaleidoscopic pattern which we quickly messed up with our communal eating. Underneath we discovered an enamel tray between the soggy bread and the basket. Well, what did we expect - pubs always use paper napkins when they serve meals in wicker.

Cutlery didn't come into it. We were each given individual injera with which to start scooping; once that was used up we worked from the outside using the bread base, by now soggy and stained with gravy, to eat our way into the middle of a diminishing injera island covered with the wat and whatnots. The lamb came in tender strips with sweet stewed onions and mysterious, pleasantly musty herbs; the salmon with "seafood seasoning of the house" was not dissimilar to Cajun blackened fish; the lentil puree was piquant with English mustard, and the spice-power of the doro was of some considerable wattage, though not the kind of heat that makes you weep.

Together, the various elements made for an immensely satisfying and lively combination. Just as well because this is pretty much all there is to it. No starters, no afters either. "What do you have for pudding?" we asked. "Nothing. We are not famous for dessert," said the Man U fan.

Coffee is the only way to end, but as the sole taker at our table, I got just a pretty cupful, dark and flavoured with cloves. I envied the group with their own copper pot and an accompanying burner. There is a room at the back with low seats for sitting around and inhaling incense and listening to African music after a lot of wat for not much wedge; we paid pounds 17 each. With a carafe of taj, the Ethiopian honey and hop wine (which is on offer) to linger over, a meal at Mekasha would be even sweeter.

Mekasha, 75 Fairfax Road, London NW6 (0171-625 8964). Tue-Sun lunch and dinner. Average pounds 15 without drink. Mastercard and Visa accepted.

More African eats: Bites, page 48