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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ethiopia to go

Sit-down or take-out, this African cuisine is sensual and spicy

Posted By on Wed, Jun 30, 2010 at 12:00 AM

What a concept — Ethiopian carry-out.

Half the fun of going to an Ethiopian restaurant has always been the ritual of eating: the steaming towels brought before and after the meal; the slightly awkward mesob, the small round, woven table, which forces you to sit somewhat away from it, exposing your entire lap to potential spills; most important, the transgressive gratification of eating with your hands.

But if you don't care about any of that, if all you seek are the vibrant flavors that Ethiopian chefs are famous for — if you really, really want to use a fork — you can now take out from Addis Ababa, at bargain prices.

Owner Bekele Lessanework fulfilled every chef's dream when he opened the small spot (a dozen tables) outside Plymouth's downtown in April. He came to this country in 1989, and cooked at one or another of the Blue Niles owned by his brother Seifu between 1990 and 2004. 

Our server Meghann, dressed in a long, white, traditional Ethiopian costume, had become quite knowledgeable about the cuisine in her short experience. She could sense that we were veterans of the injera circuit, though, and didn't press an orientation upon us.

At dinnertime, there's just one way to order: the all-you-can-eat meat-and-vegetable platter for $16.90 per person or the vegetarian platter for $14.90. Patrons of the Blue Nile, Taste of Ethiopia or Windsor's Marathon are familiar with the routine: Little heaps of fabulous dishes are placed on a giant circle of spongy injera bread, which everyone shares. More injera is alongside, folded like napkins, to use as your eating utensil until you're ready to eat the tablecloth.

At lunchtime, you can keep the meal smaller and order one meat with two vegetables for $7.95. But what makes Addis Ababa different from other Ethiopian restaurants is that it has a take-out menu. Twelve ounces of the vegetable dishes are $2.95, meat $3.75, injera free. You could create your own feast at home or for a picnic. 

I claimed that half the fun of eating Ethiopian is the technique, but the technique wouldn't be fun if the food weren't consistently delicious, which it is. I'd hanker for it even if Emily Post stood over me enforcing traditional knife-and-fork practices. And Lessanework's zilzil alecha and gomen and metin shiro wat can compete with anyone's in the area.

The meat dishes are chicken and beef — one each, spicy and mild. I preferred the mild versions, which seemed more complex than the spicy dishes, with their strong berbere flavor. (Berbere is the essential Ethiopian spice mixture; you see widely varying lists of ingredients. In Lessanework's case, it contains at least 12, including cumin, black pepper, red pepper, ginger and garlic. If there's a dominant flavor, it's the cumin and hot pepper.)

Although the mild chicken, doro alecha, has a lot more going on than an American stewed chicken — it's marinated overnight in lemon juice and cooked with ginger, garlic and jalapeños — it still has that comfort-food aura; perhaps a plate of chicken and injera is not that far from a serving of chicken and dumplings. The mild beef, zilzil alecha, is cooked in spiced, clarified butter, created by slowly simmering spices in butter so that the milk solids separate out, leaving a clear liquid.

Among the vegetable dishes, what stands out is the intensity of the flavors: They're like collards squared or split peas to the nth. To my taste, the collards, cabbage, mixed vegetables (potatoes, carrots and green beans) and kik alecha, yellow split peas, are the standouts — and that's four-sevenths of the list. The red lentils cooked in dark red berbere were my least favorite — again, the berbere overpowers all. One lentil dish is served cold, for an agreeable contrast.

We had a tart lime sorbet for dessert and some good coffee. Tea was a strong cinnamon, good either hot or iced. There's no alcohol. My only complaint would be the tossed salad of lettuce, tomatoes and onions, which was a little limp.

By the way, it's AD-dis ÁH-ba-ba, not a-BAH-bah, as you may have learned in high school. It's open every evening and for lunch Tuesday through Saturday.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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