By Marianne Weaver | Photos by Mark Gilvey
Maaza 29 might be located in a Gainesville strip mall, but take one step in the door and there is no doubt this restaurant won’t be serving the typical chain-style, rushed meal.
Owner Emanuel Reta wanted to create a restaurant to rival even the swankiest D.C. hot spots. From the 80-seat dining room filled with a hint of spice and familiar aromas to the living room/bar with updated classic cocktails and exclusive boutique wine list, Maaza 29 delivers a downtown dining experience to suburban diners.
“Our menu is a beautiful play on spices from Ethiopia applied to classic American and Italian dishes,” Reta said. “There are things on our menu that you wouldn’t expect to find, unless you were in D.C.”
Reta described the menu as “intellectually provocative.” The exotic dishes are created with locally sourced produce and meats. Hormone-free beef comes from as far as Pennsylvania and as close as Nokesville. Meats are butchered onsite. Cheeses, pasta and sauces are all homemade.
“Our lasagna takes 30 minutes to make, and we have confit of duck and awaze tibs,” he said. “Most of the items on our menu are things you would not typically expect to find in Gainesville.”
The most popular dish on the menu is the lamb shank ($24.95), which is braised in herbs and spices for 14 hours and served with rice. A close second is the vegetarian platter ($17.95), which includes a combination of chickpeas, lentils, curried vegetables, collard greens and two seasonal items.
The menu also features traditional awaze tibs, a traditional Ethiopian spice blend of berbere spices, smoked paprika, lemon juice and wine. The platter is available with beef ($16.95), chicken ($15.95), shrimp ($17.95) or lamb ($17.95) and served with sautéed onions, garlic and peppers, with a side of rice or injera (Ethiopian flat bread), and your choice of tomato salad, collard greens, spiced fries, curried potatoes and carrot or roasted corn.
Reta was featured on WUSA’s Great Day Washington making his take on the classic crab cake. “We use some Ethiopian spices in our crab cakes that are 100 percent crab,” he said. “There is no filler; they are served in a ramekin full of crab.” The crab cakes ($25.95) are served with potato croquettes and seasonal vegetables.
Joe Duffus of Gainesville stumbled upon Maaza 29 on his way to another business in the Route 29 strip mall. “Ethiopian cuisine is not common around here,” he said. “The lamb shank is braised 14 hours and falls off the bone. The beef awaze tibs, another specialty, were nicely spiced and hearty.”
Just as popular, Reta pointed out, are the appetizers. He said guests often stop by for a glass of wine and a few appetizers. The most ordered appetizers, he noted, are the lamb lollipops ($15), a grilled lamb chip served with mint and lime puree. Also topping the list, he said, are the sambusas—crisp deep-fried
pastry stuffed with spiced potato, lentils, beef or chicken ($9) or crab or tuna ($12).
Brunch is served Sundays 11:30 a. m. to 2:30 p. m. “We serve what brunch is meant to be, and that is not just eggs,” Reta said.
Breakfast starters include duck confit ($7.95); The Classic, which is deviled eggs, jumbo blue crab, and awaze ($9.95); and Jewels of the Nile, which is Medjool dates stuffed with mascarpone and bacon bits ($6.95). Brunch staples include a twist. The classic French toast ($11.95) is a banana mascarpone stuffed toast with praline pecan cream. Chicken and waffles ($13.95) feature spiced free-range chicken and organic maple sauce. Awaze eggs are served with beef tibs ($16.95), chicken tibs ($14.95), or Eggs polpetti ($13.95), which is mozzarella-stuffed meatballs with awaze eggs.
“We have a small menu because we try to do everything the right way,” said Reta. “Everything on the menu [is something]I ate growing up.”
Family recipes are fitting because Maaza is named after his mother. He chose the location, just a few miles from his Bristow home, so he could have a job that allows him the opportunity to watch his kids grow.
Reta set out to create a bar that “is an extension of your living room.” The space is filled with low-back leather couches and spacious coffee tables.
“We do a lot of craft cocktails, old recipes made new,” he said. “Our drinks are the real deal: If your order the lychee, pomegranate and ginger, your drink has lychee, pomegranate and ginger. There is no [artificial]flavoring. We don’t use simple syrup or flavored liquors.”
The wine list is something very special. Reta has 8,000 bottles in an offsite wine cellar and will soon be moving as many as 1,000 of those bottles into the restaurant, spanning a space from floor to ceiling. To encourage guests to expand their tastes, Maaza29 has created two limited membership VIP clubs.
The 1967 membership ($50 per month) includes two bottles of wine six times a year, three free appetizers a month, and 20 percent off any bottle of wine anytime. The 1942 membership ($75 per
month) includes three bottles of wine six times a year, four free appetizers a month, and 25 percent off any bottle of wine anytime. Both memberships include a free birthday dinner, which comes with an appetizer, entrée and dessert; and free members-only wine tastings.
“And,” Reta added, “if you need an Uber ride home, we will get it for you.”
Maaza 29 is located at 14630 Lee Highway, Gainesville. Dinner is served Tuesday through Thursday, 4:00–9:00 p. m.; Friday and Saturday 4:00–10:00 p. m.; Sunday 4:00–8:00 p. m. Brunch is served Sundays 11:30 a. m. to 2:30 p. m. Social hour(s) is Friday and Saturday, 10:00 p. m. to 2:00 a. m. For more information, go to maaza29.com.
Marianne E. Weaver ([email protected]) is a freelance editor and writer. She earned a BA from the University of Pittsburgh and an MJ from Temple University.