Restaurant critic: Do not be intimidated by Ethiopia – Ryan DuVall, journalgazette.net
There is a sense of intimidation when trying a new restaurant, especially when it is one that serves something way outside the norm. (more…)
There is a sense of intimidation when trying a new restaurant, especially when it is one that serves something way outside the norm.
In the case of Ethiopian Restaurant, its simple name may fuel that intimidation with strong mental images of a country that not so long ago was marked by famine.
Fort Wayne has a lot of good ethnic restaurants, but they intimidate less because Thai, Korean and Vietnamese are easily comparable to Chinese food, which is very Americanized, and anything from south of the border falls under the Latin food umbrella and is easily compared with good old Americanized Mexican.
There is no comfortable comparison for African cuisine.
But what I found at Ethiopian Restaurant was anything but intimidating. It was simply prepared and seasoned food – much less exotic than much of the Latin and Asian fare I have had – made in a family setting much the same way I suspect it has been made for members of that family for years.
The hard-to-find restaurant, in a strip of stores near Parkview Hospital on State Boulevard, is small and has little character except for a few posters and knick-knacks from Ethiopia.
The menu is also quite small, with vegetarian, chicken, beef and lamb offerings, since most traditional Ethiopians do not eat pork for religious reasons.
The base for Ethiopian food is injera bread, which is made from fermented teff flour and is more like a cold crepe than actual bread. This bread is your eating utensil.
You can ask for flatware, but Ethiopians eat with their right hand and use pieces of the injera to grab the food. Injera has little flavor except for a touch of sourness, so it is truly more of a vehicle for other offerings.
It is also quite pasty, and all of the pieces, which included a huge layer covering the bottom of the huge family-style serving platter on which all of the food is served, were cold. So, no, this is not like Indian dosa, which is delicious plain.
The best dish I had was the lega tibs – lamb sautéed in onion jalapeño, butter and spices. These big chunks of mild meat resembled beef tips and were just as moist and tender. The onion added a dash of sweetness, the jalapeño provided spice, and a few sprigs of thyme rounded the dish out.
The lamb, of which I received a large bowl, is available only on Fridays and Saturdays.
I also loved the yemisir wat – red split lentils in red pepper, onions, herbs and berbere sauce, which is a combination of chili pepper and other spices.
The dark red beans had the texture of chunky refried beans and had a wonderful hint of spice.
The doro alicha – chicken leg seasoned with onion, garlic, fresh ginger, a touch of butter and green pepper, all simmered in turmeric – was a bit disappointing. The turmeric gave the dish a unique fresh, zesty flavor, and the green pepper colored the sauce, which was a bit chunky like a chutney.
However, the chicken leg was small in spite of being fall-off-the-bone tender and juicy. The dish was minuscule in comparison to the huge portion of lamb, which was the same price.
The kitfo regular was similar in flavor and color but was a better option. Minced and seasoned beef was mixed with herbed butter, cardamom – which gave it a greenish-yellow color – and mitmita, which is a spice mix of chili peppers, cardamom seed, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, ginger and salt.
The tiny bits of beef were hearty but too small to really gauge quality, and the spice mix gave it a lot of depth.
All of the entrées were joined on the serving platter with sides, which vary daily.
Stewed cabbage with carrot slices was served during both visits and was my favorite of the sides.
This slightly sweet, soft, cool cabbage salad of sorts was bright yellow from the addition of turmeric, but it had a nice palate-cleansing effect, which made you keep going back from more.
I also loved the super-sweet beets-and-carrots side, which was dark red and slightly spicy from a hint of jalapeño.
Most of the spicy dishes were pretty tame, and the woman who handled the kitchen duties said she has made them that way purposefully so the food is pleasing to all palates.
A mealy scoop of split peas, which were also quite yellow from, again, turmeric, was my least favorite of the sides as the texture was too mushy, and it was refrigerator-cold. I would have rather had more of the potatoes and carrots stewed in tomatoes, which was hearty and more familiar in flavor.
The Ethiopian coffee was familiar in that it was stout and hot, but it also had a wonderful nutty, spicy background that made it unique. It is believed that coffee originated in Ethiopia, so it is a serious undertaking.
The coffee was served in beautiful traditional black pots, and the cook said she adds clove and cardamom to create the unique taste. I enjoyed every drop and would encourage anyone who tries Ethiopian Restaurant to try some.
That said, my coffee, which was the first thing I ordered during both visits, arrived more than halfway through my meal. Although I was served water and I appreciated that the coffee was brewed fresh, I would have liked to receive it sooner. I also was never able to try the home salad with homemade dressing because the folks there forgot about it both times I visited.
The courteous, gracious family members that run Ethiopian Restaurant did their best, it seemed, but I got the feeling they are new to the service industry.
But the food was unique and satisfying for the most part, and the experience of eating with your hands and trying food of a much different color and flavor than any other ethnic restaurant makes it well worth checking out.
Restaurant: Ethiopian Restaurant
Address: 2805 E. State Blvd.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol served: None
Credit cards accepted: Yes
Kid-friendly: Yes, but no menu options
Menu: Ethiopian coffee ($2.95), yemisir wat ($7.95), lega tibs ($9.95), doro alicha ($9.95), kitfo regular ($9.95)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at email@example.com, call at 461-8130, or go to the “Dining Out” topic of “The Board” at www.journalgazette.net. DuVall’s past reviews can also be found under the Web site’s Food tab.