Hands-on cuisine

May 29, 2002 at 12:00 am

Apparently there are still folks around who haven’t tried Ethiopian cooking yet, because Seifu Lessanework, owner of Detroit’s first Ethiopian restaurant, says some of his customers bring in their friends in order to show off. Those are not his words, of course; Lessanework, who is nothing if not gracious, says customers bring people “to surprise them, to show them a unique place — something someone had never eaten. They can be a connoisseur.”

Like I said, a showoff. I’ve done it myself. And I feel a little smug that I frequented the Blue Nile back in 1983, when it was a storefront on Woodward, before the move to Trappers Alley.

Now Lessanework has moved again, to Ferndale as of April 17, and he says that old customers who gave up on his Greektown location because of lack of parking are coming back. The restaurant was full on a recent Thursday. The carved mahogany front door and other dark wood fixtures made the trip north.

For those unfamiliar with Ethiopian dining, a big part of the draw is that you get to eat with your hands (steaming washcloths are tendered before and after) and then eat the tablecloth.

At the Blue Nile, you get only two all-you-can-eat choices: four meats and seven vegetables for $17.90, or all veg for $14.90 (kids eat for half price).

Chicken, lamb, beef, collards, cabbage, and several varieties of split peas and lentils are arranged on a large shared round of flat, spongy bread, called injera (that’s the tablecloth). Diners use small pieces of injera to scoop up the food, and the juices soak into the plattered injera so that the last part of the meal is the tastiest.

The staff makes sure that anyone who wanders in unaware of what they’re in for — that is, anyone unaccompanied by a connoisseur — is well taken care of. “A very few people,” says Lessanework, “the moment they walk in and see the menu, you see it in their eyes. We explain how everything works.”

He also provides several kinds of seating, for varying levels of authenticity-seekers: wooden chairs 18 inches off the floor; chairs circling a round, knee-height wicker table; and regular old booths. In the second option, you have to lean forward a little and convey the injera-wrapped food back across your open lap, so it’s a good thing that sizeable white napkins are provided.

As if eating with your hands weren’t fun enough, the food is delectable and unusual. Colors are bright: a mound of dark green collards, a puree of red lentils, bright yellow split peas and a paler cabbage (my favorite) sautéed with jalapeño.

Each is exquisitely spiced, often with onion and garlic, or with a barbecuelike berbere sauce. Lessanework takes pains to point out that his lamb is boiled and stripped of fat to avoid any muttony flavor. Chicken, served in two varieties, is skinned.

Given the “all-you-care-to-eat” policy, it’s lucky that Ethiopian cooking methods are low-fat, because it’s hard to stop reaching for more of the spicy collards and sweet cabbage. Even the butter is boiled to remove some of the fat. This procedure was invented not because Ethiopians were worried about cholesterol but in order to preserve the butter without refrigeration.

You can order one side dish: a simple romaine and red onion salad with an unobtrusive dressing ($3 per person). This is also finger food.

The Ethiopian honey wine is too sweet for me, but there’s a full bar, including wine, for those who want to mix and match their cultures. Most wines are $5 or so per glass.

Lessanework left Greektown partly because of the parking problem; but now he’s found a lot, so in September he’ll inaugurate a new Blue Nile, at Gratiot and Brush. His location in Ann Arbor opened in 1989.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].