November 29-December 5, 2006

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First Bite

Santa Trata

By Carey Sweet

I've eaten with my fingers in the best of restaurants. Yes, my sticky digits have pressed the fine china at the French Laundry, Charlie Trotter's, Le Bernardin and dozens of other well-respected eateries across the Americas, Europe and Asia.

When confronted (as rarely but sometimes happens) by stuffy fellow diners, I tilt my nose in the air and point out that, for cultured connoisseurs, chopsticks are the preferred utensils for any food, since the metal in cutlery can warp food's subtle flavors. Why, using my pristine paws is actually a salute to the chef.

(That cutlery theory is actually true. What's more important, though, is that I simply love to eat with my hands. Breaking off little bits of crispy animal skin, pulling small shards of juicy braised meat, plucking crunchy produce and spooning savory custards into my mouth to feel the food as much as taste it--it's all so deliciously primal.)

So imagine my joy at discovering the brand-new Santa Trata in southwest Santa Rosa. It's an Eritrean eatery, so not only is eating with fingers accepted, it's the only method allowed.

Food is served in mounds atop a large platter of injera, an enormous quilt of unleavened sour bread that is the heart and soul--and main utensil--of northeast Africa. The steamed dough is more like a pancake, fluffy and pocketed with bubbles; we tear off pieces of bread to scoop stews or wrap meats burrito-style.

On our visit, the little 10-table Santa Trata was so new that it didn't yet have menus printed. Our waitress simply showed us that evening's choices: six items that we can select in various combinations (any two for $8.99; any three for $10.99), including a side green salad. We choose all six, then sat back in our leopard-skin-covered booth seats, admiring the colorful collection of African art decorating every inch of the walls.

Eritrean food typically is very spicy, kicked with lots of berbere (cayenne paste). It's also dramatically seasoned, in flurries of ginger, cardamom, coriander, fenugreek, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, garlic and paprika. So imagine my disappointment to discover that Santa Trata's version is neither. There's serious fire in the zigne, minced beef in a buttery homemade chili sauce so powerful that my tongue watered. Yet the properly sour injera overpowered the meek beef curry, while the usually infernal dorho kulwa is more like Chinese stir-fry, tossing chicken chunks in mildly spiced butter with garlic, onion and pepper.

"It smells like Indian food," my companion muses, lifting a bundle of hamlee to her lips, but the spinach casserole is more soothing than stimulating.

Shiro (pureed lentils) is nice enough and the vegetarian alicha is a pleasant mix of al dente herbed potato, carrot, zucchini, and bell pepper. But like the hot chocolate Santa Trata serves--cocoa-flavored water, really--there's very little oomph here.

In the mornings, Santa Trata is a coffee, smoothie and juice bar, morphing to Eritrean eats at lunch. It's obviously a work in progress. Our waitress explains that a full menu is coming soon. Here's hoping the full fire and spices come with it. My mouth--and my fingers--could use a little thrill.

Santa Trata, 711 S. Stony Point Road, Santa Rosa. Open daily, 7am to 9pm. 707. 575.8792.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.