There's a good handful of stand-out Ethiopian restaurants in Chicago, but none are better known than Demera. The restaurant faces a historic corner of Lawrence Avenue, where the glittering emerald lights of the Green Mill twinkle. Although Demera has only been open since 2007, it's already an Uptown neighborhood mainstay in its own right.
The owners, Girmai Lemma and Tigist Reda (Reda is also the chef) emphasize hand-crafted tradition, brewing their own honey wine, fermenting their own injera, and roasting their own Ethiopian coffee beans. Yet the rustic, rich flavors of everyday Ethiopian food is balanced with the restaurant's interior, where an airy, fine dining atmosphere is wrought in white tablecloths and gleaming dark wood floors. On weekends, the place is typically crammed to the windows with first dates, celebrating friends, and families scooping aromatic, saucy meats, legumes, and vegetables into their mouths.
Although on its drink menu Demera offers an array of traditional reds and whites, they're no competition for the restaurant's home-brewed honey wine ($22 for a bottle) called tejj. This cloudy, strong mead is certainly sweet, but not at all cloying. An earthy hopped flavor, imparted by the Ethiopian buckthorn plant called gesho, balances the simple, three-ingredient fermented drink. I personally wouldn't dream of drinking anything else here, although you couldn't be blamed for choosing one of the African beers instead.
Now on to the main course. Particularly if you're new to Ethiopian food, the vegetarian and meat messob ($30.95 for two) is indisputably the way to go. It gives you the freedom to pick six samplings across Demera's classic options—three vegetarian, three from select lamb, chicken, and beef choices—and is an entrée into Ethiopia's distinctive communal dining style. Why get your own dish when you can swipe your injera in everyone else's personal space?
Speaking of injera: Demera's is delicious, albeit not as fluffy as some I've seen. As at most local Ethiopian spots, you can pay $2.50 more for a teff-only (and gluten-free) bread or stick with the daily offering, which is blended with wheat flour.
Starting with that indistinct yellow blob located at high noon and working your way clockwise in the photo, you see the kik alicha (yellow lentils in a simple preparation of garlic, ginger, and turmeric), gomen (salty greens with garlic, onions, and ginger) doro alicha (two small chicken drumsticks marinated in lemon, served with rosemary and a hard-boiled egg), michetabish (cubes of white pepper and cardamom-rubbed beef in mild, rich berbere), ye-siga wot (tender beef stewed in spicy berbere), and ye-misir wot (lentils in berbere).
Each dish is wholeheartedly recommendable, but there are a few highlights. Gomen is one of my favorite classic sides, and it's particularly good here. Collard greens are chopped, salted, and cooked down in ginger, garlic, and the spiced ghee that is the base of nearly every Ethiopian dish. I don't know how long it simmers, but the result is a warm, green, garlicky pile of silk with a light hint of spice from finely minced jalapeno. Nearby, Demera's mild-tasting ayib, a dry and fluffy homemade cheese accompanying the doro alicha, harmonizes its slightly sour notes with that of the injera—proving your utensil's ability to sharpen interesting flavors, rather than mask them. Can your fork do that?
Finally, the ye-siga wot—though I admit it might be indistinguishable visually from the other beef dish, not to mention the ye-misir wot—is a stand-out. The beef is stewed until it falls to shreds and becomes one with the thick, intensely exotic berbere sauce, which is laced with chile, coriander, fenugreek, cloves, and more.
To help finish off the last of the honey wine, the basil lime sorbet ($3.75) is a light option from a dessert menu that also includes an Ethiopian-style tiramisu using Demera's house-roasted organic coffee, sweet sambusas, and something spectacular-looking and ice cream-topped called the hibist volcano. Although a comparatively humble choice, this sorbet is silky smooth and bafflingly delicious. Many citrus sorbets wind up somehow simultaneously mouth-puckeringly sour and saccharine, but this one surprises with its dusky and rich favor, tart on the tongue yet herbal and smoothly sweet.