Review: Taste of Ethiopia slips at Southfield location 

click to enlarge A taste of the offerings from Taste of Ethiopoia.

Tom Perkins

A taste of the offerings from Taste of Ethiopoia.

I suspect many people go to Ethiopian restaurants as much for the experience as for the food: the steaming washcloths brought before and after, the pleasure of eating with your hands, the communal experience of sharing a platter, even the fun of "eating the tablecloth" afterward, soaked in the juices of the meats and vegetables.

The wall slogan at Taste of Ethiopia is "Spread Love the Goursha Way," goursha being the practice of feeding each other, hand to mouth.

I reviewed Taste of Ethiopia, when it first opened 12 years ago in a different location, and waxed rhapsodic: "flavors... so deep and so true that you may suspect you've never really experienced a lentil, a collard so intimately." This time, though the experience was as lovely as ever and the service charming, I can't get as excited, as the food has slipped. One companion said simply, "C-."

Just in case there's one reader left who hasn't eaten Ethiopian, it works like this: You use injera, a spongy flatbread made simply from water and the ancient grain teff to scoop up your food — no flatware. The way most American customers order is to get a sampler platter; owner Meski Gebreyohannes offers a vegetarian version with six vegetables and legumes, or a meat one with lamb, chicken, and beef, plus two vegetables. On one of our visits the servings were placed directly atop a giant circle of injera, the way I like it, so that the "tablecloth" became saturated with the food essences.

The vegetarian dishes are imported-from-Ethiopia ground chickpeas, red and green lentils, collards, steamed cabbage and carrots with ginger, greens beans and carrots, steamed potatoes, split peas, and squash. Many are cooked with berbere, similar to chili powder in taste and color. You can order a whole entrée of any of these, or of the meat dishes, if you don't want to go the sampler route. None stands out, with the spices masking the plants' own flavors, though perhaps the squash best combined its own delicate spirit with berbere.

I liked the pungent lamb that Gebreyohannes offers three ways, though it was pretty sinewy in both mild yebeg alicha and spicier awaze tibs, marinated with berbere. The server warned me away from fasika tibs, which she described as plain and dry lamb, with no sauce, and I'm sure she was right. My memory is of happy differences among the three versions each of chicken and beef, but that was less true this time. Siga we't, beef stew, was most reminiscent of American barbecue sauce — not that there's anything wrong with that.

I advised my friend not to order the fried tilapia entrée, and like our server, I was right: "Mrs. Paul's," he opined. He could have gotten cubed tilapia with "Ethiopian seasoning," though I wonder how different it would have seemed from the meat dishes.

Gebreyohannes has expanded her original menu to add a long list of drinks: cocktails, beer and wine, fresh juices, and smoothies. They were out of Ethiopian beer or tonic for gin and tonic when we visited, but served up a large and potent Dark and Stormy, the ginger beer offering a good counterpart to the spicy food. A cinnamon-flavored shai tea did the same, and both a mango-banana smoothie and a foam-topped African Diamond made with rum, vodka, and cranberry and pineapple juices felt tropical (though it's high-altitude, Ethiopia is near the equator).

We loved the soup of the day, shorba, a thick and spicy golden butternut squash. The kategna appetizer, though, was too simple, just two triangles of barely toasted injera with berbere.

Dessert borrows from a number of cultures. It can be baklava, vegan cheesecake, or fried plantains with caramel sauce and ice cream, which sounds like delightful excess. We chose ice cream with dates, and it turned out to be caramel-like Medjool dates, twice the size and twice the sweetness of other dates, atop a rich vanilla: a sweet consolation. Vegan ice cream is also available.

Taste of Ethiopia had a decent number of customers on two recent weekends, and I hope both that they enjoyed themselves and that the kitchen will return to its former glory.

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