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It's rare that one restaurant -- just through its very atmosphere -- conjures up feelings of warmth, community and friendship. And rarer, even, is an establishment that combines such a welcoming aura with cuisine and service of a truly outstanding caliber. The restaurant is Dahlak. Located at 4708 Baltimore Avenue, Dahlak specializes in the tantalizing dishes of Ethiopia and Eritrea -- African nations whose exotic, flavorful dishes are not often recognized in the realm of haute cuisine. At Dahlak, though, such notions can be checked at the door. Guests are welcomed into a surprisingly cozy yet spacious dining area by the affable host and owner, Amare Solomon, who takes great pleasure in introducing the unaccustomed to the flavors of his native land. Solomon, who also manages the Quadrangle's McClelland Hall dining facility, opened Dahlak in 1983 with his wife Neghisti, who adds her own style to each dish as the restaurant's head chef. The main dining area features a wide array of colorful adornments and photos from Eastern Africa. And whether seated at a western-style table or at one of the more traditional African mesops -- small wicker basins surrounded by leather stools -- you're guaranteed to share in the Ethiopian dining experience from the moment you sit down. At first, you may be alarmed to notice the absence of cutlery, but don't fret. All dishes are served with injera, a traditional crepe-like bread that is used to pick up small pieces of the various meats and vegetables that fill your table's communal plate. It's that style of eating -- in part -- that gives Dahlak its unique character. Gursha -- the act of placing food into the mouth of your companion -- is considered a sign of friendship, and it's a practice you may want to try just to supplement the experience of the food. The menu features a surprisingly broad spectrum of beef, chicken, lamb, shrimp and vegetable dishes -- all prepared in a stew-like fashion, though with differing spices and accompaniments. Forty-three entrees await your selection, from the sumptuous yedoro ataiklt ($7.25) -- chicken cooked with peppers, broccoli, carrots, onion, garlic and ginger -- to the smooth, rich shrimp alicha ($6.75) -- baby shrimp prepared in a spicy garlic sour cream sauce. Of the dishes we sampled, special mention must be made for the dahlak tibs ($7.00) -- a delicious blend of beef cubes, peppers, onions and special spices -- as well as kik watt ($5.50), a hearty medley of yellow split peas and the restaurant's signature berbere sauce. Add a pitcher of mango juice or a bottle of birz -- an Ethiopian drink made from honey -- to give your meal a truly distinctive touch. And for those with different tastes, try a selection from Dahlak's newly established bar. Dessert will follow, but only if you have room to continue. Dahlak features a small but reliable list of tasty finishing touches -- including baklava, carrot cake and vanilla ice cream -- all priced at $2. The adventuresome might also want to indulge in a cup of the restaurant's special coffee -- flavored with spices to give it a distinctive flair. All in all, the Dahlak experience is one not to be missed. Reasonably priced dishes, a warm and inviting atmosphere and truly outstanding food provide more than enough incentive to venture west just a few blocks. You'll be glad you did.

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