Time has been good to Ferndale’s Ethiopian restaurant the Blue Nile

Oct 30, 2019 at 1:00 am
An Ethiopian feast at the Blue Nile.
An Ethiopian feast at the Blue Nile. Tom Perkins

The Blue Nile first opened on Woodward Avenue near Wayne State University, way back in the mists of time, in 1983. It was something completely new for Detroiters, both the cuisine and the happy experience of eating with your hands indoors in a restaurant. Plenty of folks fell in love with Ethiopian food and have stayed that way since.

Several worthy competitors to the Blue Nile have sprung up over the years; I was surprised last year when I went to one where the food was actually not good — my first-ever such experience eating Ethiopian, in Detroit, Washington, or Philadelphia.

I was pretty sure that that was just one bad apple, but I wanted to see if the Blue Nile, the granddaddy of them all, had withstood the test of time — and the test of serving essentially the same dishes night after night for 36 years.

Yes, it has — it's still fabulous and still fun — and with a way more elaborate drinks menu.

Time was when the only alcohol you could get at the Blue Nile was too sweet Ethiopian honey wine. That's still on the menu, but now there are 10 Michigan and international beers, a couple of dozen red, white, and sparkling wines from all over the world, and five cocktails made by blending Ethiopian tea with spirits. Cognac and tea? Gin and tea? Sounds awful, but someone must be ordering it. More appealing is a blend of Bailey's, Jameson Irish whiskey, and high-altitude Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee. Yirgacheffe, if you believe its fans, has notes of floral, citrus, berries, nuts, chocolate, and wine. But that's no reason not to try it.

I went instead for a mini-bottle of Spanish cava and found its acidic bubbliness a perfect foil to both the rich meats and the pungent vegetables of Ethiopian cuisine, as well as the filling injera.

The Blue Nile eventually moved to Ferndale after a run in Greektown, and opened an Ann Arbor branch in 1989 (221 E. Washington St.). A Downriver venture did not go well and had to be abandoned. The original setup was to offer two platters: all-you-can-eat vegetarian or, for a higher price, all-you-can-eat meat, legumes, and vegetables. Now the platters are vegetarian, but you can add meat dishes a la carte for $6, $7, or $11.

It's still the case that the best part of your meal can be eating the tablecloth — the big round under-layer of injera that all the rich juices from the meat and vegetables have soaked into. The Blue Nile serves two types of injera, one made with wheat flour, which comes out white, and one with the traditional Ethiopian grain teff, which is nearly gluten-free. Either way, the spongy texture is perfect for absorbing the essence of all the dishes that have been arrayed around the circle.

Those dishes are: two types of chicken, more and less spicy (but it's a family-friendly spice level); lamb cooked with onions, garlic, and jalapeños; beef in berbere sauce, which is a heady mix of spices; collards, also with onions, garlic, and jalapeños; mixed vegetables (mostly potatoes, pretty bland); two versions of yellow split peas, one in berbere sauce, one simpler; cabbage; red lentils in berbere; and brown lentils served cool.

If this sounds repetitious, it's not. Each dish is distinctive. The milder chicken is reminiscent of chicken and dumplings — the bland injera adds to that idea. The lamb flavor is strong, almost muttony. Of the vegetables, I liked the cabbage best, with its sweet, buttery flavor. Collards are just acrid enough to be interesting and delicious. You can order a simple romaine and tomato salad with a lemon dressing for $3. This too is finger food.

Colors are bright, not just on the table but throughout the restaurant. It's decorated with big-eyed angels and umbrellas, which in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church symbolize the presence of the Holy Spirit. The traditional seating is at a mesob, a small round table, knee-height, that you lean into slightly to scoop up your food. Regular booths are available, too.

When I interviewed owner Seifu Lessanework some years ago, he said the reason the Blue Nile had survived was that it was unique. That's no longer so, but the same attention to detail is there: the steaming washcloths brought before and after the meal, the complimentary cup of cinnamon tea at the end of what feels like a ritual.

"We don't rush you," Lessanework said. "We are a destination restaurant. Not a lunch place." He goes so far as to say that the communal style of eating will break the ice on a first date, or "re-ignite weary flames."

Readers, if you have ideas for other old favorites you'd like to see revisited, let us know at [email protected].

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