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Waiting to inhale

Meskerem moves its aromatic pleasures to blessedly sunnier digs

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Ah, actual natural light. How refreshing to have it flooding over our injera and doro wot at lunchtime.

In its previous digs in the Cheshire Square shopping center (home of Tara Cinemas), Meskerem served some of Atlanta's most soulfully prepared Ethiopian cuisine -- in one of the gloomiest tombs in which I've ever consumed a meal. What had once been a New Age bookstore became an immense, sunless echo chamber of a restaurant. Even when substantial crowds gathered on weekend nights, the place never gained critical conviviality. The tables were too spread out to generate any collective sense of good cheer.

When it was announced that a Publix would be moving into the shopping center and Meskerem's lease would not be renewed, the restaurant -- in a barely disguised blessing -- was forced to seek a new home.

Its current digs, in a quirky strip mall just off the I-85 Clairmont Road exit, feel much more fitting to the welcoming intentions of owners Martha Teshome and Wossen Fikru. During the daytime, the mustard-colored walls and big windows make the dining room look downright phosphorescent by comparison. The bar has been set up just like its first incarnation, in the center of the back wall, paneled with rounded mirrors. In this blissfully shrunken setting, you can even detect enticingly exotic aromas whispering through the room -- a mixture of dusky spices, sizzling meat, incense and coffee.

Ooh, yeah. The traditional coffee ceremony. The one standout benefit of the old space was to partake in the ritualized preparation of coffee, performed several times daily in Ethiopia, in a sectioned-off corner of the restaurant. I see the same setup here. Can we have the ceremony after lunch today?

"I'm sorry," says our server. "We aren't ready to do it right now."

I become intimately familiar with this tone and corresponding facial expression during the course of several visits. My numerous attempts to order the more uncommon dishes listed on the menu -- fried fish (any fish), lentil sambusa pastries, lamb soup, Ethiopian honey wine -- are met with the same kill-you-with-kindness smile and gentle apology: "I'm sorry, we don't have that right now."

"Will you have it soon? I know you only reopened six weeks ago."

"I'm not sure, sir." Unwavering, unflappable, maddening patience.

Fortunately, the standard offerings are made with uncommon care. Skip the few appetizers and soups. You want to dive right into the main event.

The food, as at most Ethiopian eateries, is presented on a large platter lined with injera, the spongy, softly sour bread that also serves as a utensil. Always order one vegetarian combination for the group as the foundation for your meal. The kitchen makes particularly good gomen -- chopped collard greens mildly flavored with onions, garlic and green pepper, and glossed with butter. That and the misir wot -- thick red lentil stew redolent of berbere, the essential spice combination for Ethiopian cooking -- are typically the first to vanish from the platter.

Neither a similar yellow lentil preparation with much milder seasoning nor a bland collage of cabbage, carrots and unwieldy chunks of potatoes are intrinsically offensive, but neither do they add much savor to the mix.

Unless vegetarians are dining alongside carnivores, meat entrees will be interspersed among the vegetables. Doro wat is perhaps the best known Ethiopian dish: a chicken leg simmered in a berbere-infused sauce and paired with a boiled egg. At Meskerem, though, I prefer the lamb and beef dishes. Ye beg wot is the lamb equivalent to doro wat, and I'm more enamored of the way the chiles and the cumin and cardamom in the berbere mingle with that meat's gamy prowess. Ye beg alicha looks less fetching with the lamb left on the bone, but the meat proves supple and the tumeric sauce is nicely poised between mild and zingy.

Every table in the restaurant seems to order zizil tibs, the fabulously onomatopoetic moniker for what is essentially an Ethiopian beef fajita. Here it comes on its sizzling tray, billowing smoke. The steaky strips are a tad chewy but also a needed contrast to the soft textures that dominate this cooking.

You can eat until your stomach protrudes. Injera is sneaky: It feels light and thin but fills you up quickly. Servers will bring you baskets of injera, but you want to try and save a little room until most of the meal is polished off. Then you hunker down on the injera draping the platter, which is soaked through with spicy, buttery juices.

I could cope with the unusual dishes not being available, but I longed for the coffee ceremony after lunch and dinner. Finally, before my third visit, I call ahead and am promised I can imbibe that night. The restaurant is quiet when I arrive with a couple friends. Two customers are already in the ceremony alcove, contentedly sipping from small white cups. I tell the server that I called ahead, and she suggests we eat first.

Dinner's over, we're lapsing into injera food comas, we could use some java. But business has picked up and our server is starting to hustle. She avoids eye contact. I remain stoic. Finally, she ushers us to the alcove. She begins by lighting incense, a mixture of loose ingredients that smells partly of frankincense, partly of the piñon wood burned in the Southwest in winter. It's an ancient scent of community and ritual. The perfume of the coffee beans roasting on a round, flat pan soon weaves its way into the fragrant tapestry. This pungent whirlwind, I realize, is the true heart of the ceremony. I'm satisfied before I even take my first rich sip.

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