Wednesday, August 20, 2003

For the long run

Posted By on Wed, Aug 20, 2003 at 12:00 AM

Why name a restaurant after a footrace? Marathon’s owner T.J. Hagos wants to call attention to Ethiopia’s prowess in long-distance running: 12 Olympic gold medals, four of them in the marathon. It may be living and training at 9,000 feet on “the roof of Africa,” as his native land is called, that builds strong bodies 12 ways.

Or it may be the brilliant Ethiopian food that so many Westerners have come to love. It’s claimed to be healthy, with much of the fat removed from the butter before frying.

I was delighted to run across Marathon, just a few miles from home (in downtown Windsor) and very easy on the wallet. In two visits I spent U.S. $33 (with drinks) and U.S. $26 (without) for two eaters, including tips and those onerous Canadian taxes. That’s a lot better than you can do on this side of the border.

I asked the waitress why people were attracted to Ethiopian food. She said it’s because “it can’t be fast food. It’s all cooked with no rush.” Fresh spices are blended daily.

“Couldn’t it also be because you get to eat with your hands?” I asked. When I proposed Ethiopian to a visiting Cincinnatian recently, he objected, “But they have those weird rubber napkins.” Wrong attitude.

Skip this brief explanation if you’re in the know: Ethiopian food is served on a big round of flat (yes, somewhat rubbery) pancake called injera. Diners use more pieces of injera (they come to the table folded like napkins) to scoop up bites of vegetables, meat and salad. The juices soak into the underlying injera — sublime.

I took a first-time Ethiopian-eater to Marathon, and we noticed that you could order the dishes either with injera or with rice (the latter being about $3 cheaper). “Rice would have been so wrong,” my companion kept saying. We wondered if you would use a fork? A spoon? No, you’ve got to go for the whole meal-of-finger-food experience. The pre- and post-dinner warm-washcloth ceremony is an essential part of the experience.

Here’s a quibble: I wish they would leave that washcloth around throughout. I’m sure that in Ethiopia even 3-year-olds can eat an entire meal without getting sauce on their fingers, but one paper napkin was not enough to tide me over till the second washcloth.

More nit-picking — the music. We thought it might be “generic ethnic,” a contradiction in terms.

But the food is the thing — red and green lentils, spinach, cabbage, yellow peas, chicken and beef cooked with turmeric, garlic, onion, tomatoes, green chilies and/or berbere (red pepper) sauce. Each dish is distinctive, and each tastes as if it could have taken a lot of time, or at least a lot of care.

No one ever orders a la carte in an Ethiopian restaurant. The way to go is the vegetable combo and/or the meat combo. If you try both, you’ll supposedly get to sample six vegetables and three meats, but I counted 11 items on our big round of injera, including a green salad.

However, once you’re a veteran, you may want to branch out a bit, since Marathon only offers certain beef and chicken dishes in the combo. You might try doro wat, two chicken drumsticks in lots of hot red berbere sauce, or lamb or fish.

Marathon does not have the very sweet Ethiopian honey wine on its menu, but I think ginger tea is a better
accompaniment anyway. There’s a full bar and Ethiopian espresso-type coffee. If you really want to be authentic, you can request the traditional coffee ceremony.

Or you might want to go next door, to a coffeehouse that seems to be named “Milk” and is open to the elements on one dimension.

As you sip, think of Gezahegne Abera, who won the gold in Sydney three years ago in the men’s marathon with a time of
2 hours, 10 minutes, 11 seconds.

Closed Tuesdays.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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