Look out, Lalibela. For the first time since it opened almost five years ago, the little restaurant should be peering over its shoulder at competition for the Ethiopian dining market. About two months back, Blue Nile Cafe debuted just a few blocks away at Rural Road and University Drive.
Cafe Lalibela is, as always, an excellent place to eat Ethiopian-inspired food, but the Blue Nile is topnotch, too. Is this town big enough for two Ethiopian eateries? When they're both this good, the answer is yes.
Blue Nile is the dream of Abel Taddesse Meja, a former resident of Africa. This is his first restaurant, but he handles the business like a true pro, focusing on fresh ingredients, friendly service and from-scratch cooking.
The main dining room isn't much to look at -- gray walls with painted ceiling borders of African symbols, gray linoleum floors and casual chairs done in wood and gray-blue vinyl. Most of the tables are plain, but a few show imagination, featuring glass-topped boxes divided into compartments packed with raw beans, lentils and peas. It's like eating atop an earth-tone rainbow, a mosaic of maroon, mint green, burnt orange, corn yellow, taupe and golden-brown pebbles.
But the real excitement is in the adjoining room, where olive and apricot walls embrace a cozy klatsch of traditional Ethiopian dinettes: intricately carved, swaybacked wooden stools, about half a foot high, clustered around a mesab, a handmade wicker hourglass-shaped table with a domed cover (think of a mini woven Taj Mahal).
Eating Ethiopian food is part of the experience. When the mesab cover is removed, the server presents a hubcap-size tray blanketed with injera, an enormous quilt of unleavened bread that is the heart and soul, plus utensils, of Ethiopia. The steamed bread is more like a pancake, fluffy and pocketed with bubbles, tangy with sourdough character. The bread serves as a tablecloth of sorts, adorned with small mounds of food, and diners tear off pieces of bread to scoop stews or wrap meats burrito-style. While other restaurants make do with buckwheat or flour, Blue Nile uses authentic teff -- a tiny grain that's ground, mixed with water and allowed to ferment, then cooked over a flat clay griddle.
Ethiopia is all about sensual spicing, and Blue Nile sends the stuff out like a thundering crash of cymbals. I once survived on awful food for two weeks in Senegal, Africa -- chicken and couscous, couscous and chicken -- but Ethiopia likes spice. This is the hottest, most peppery food in all of Africa, and, for that matter, many parts of the world. Favorites include berbere or awaze, thick pastes dense with cayenne pepper plus more than a dozen other spices like ginger, cardamom, coriander, fenugreek, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, garlic and paprika. The fire is both pain and pleasure, rendering an angry burn on lips and gums, followed by cool relief from sips of fruit-toned iced tea.
Such rabid spicing goes a long way, and it's a good thing, given that portions at Blue Nile are tiny. Appetizers tip the scales at a few ounces; entrees arrive in small stainless-steel bowls the size of soup plates. A party of two has no trouble finishing three starters and three main dishes.
Sambusa starters are two miniature won tons. Lightly fried in vegetable oil, the crispy bundles burst with minced beef, green chile and potent herbs. A chicken version is juicy, while a vegetable model offers a mix of green chile, onion, herbs and a choice of lentil, cabbage, carrots, collard greens and potato.
It's surprising how good cold puréed lentils can be in misir azifa, the still-firm legumes blended with finely chopped onions and green chiles. But credit a vibrant vinaigrette sauce, delightfully tart and incendiary. Blue Nile's house dressing does wonders for Ethiopian potato salad, with an olive oil and lemon glaze over diced potato and green chile, while the same dressing anoints kay seer salad, a lively chop of beets, potatoes, onion and chile pepper.
Ethiopia is Eden for vegetarians, and Blue Nile shows just how stunning the simple dishes can be. There are few things more comforting than kik alitcha, a thick, puréed mash of warm yellow split peas simmered in a mild sauce of onion, herbs and spices. Yemisir watt adds potent heat to puréed lentils, simmered in berbere sauce, while shuro watt works the same success with seasoned milled chickpeas.
And who needs fancy, when tikil gomen brings such a compelling creation of sliced cabbage and potato chunks, cooked with curry and herbs? A mild sauce of onions, herbs and spices propels soft collard greens to greatness in gomen watt, while onions, pepper, lime juice and vegetable oil elevate humble tomato and injera in timatim fitfit.
Meat shows up in a variety of costumes. Yedor watt means fall-from-the-bone chicken, a drumstick and thigh cloaked in a hot and thick berbere sauce, partnered with a hard-boiled egg stained with paprika. Add injera soaking in the stew and it's yedoro fitfit. Substitute shrimp and it's shrimp watt, served with tomato salad and cabbage.
Blue Nile tebbs is an excellent, familiar entry into Ethiopian dining, featuring tender sautéed chopped beef in a sauce flavored with onion, tomatoes, green chile, seasoned butter and spices. Kitfo is only for adventurous people, but the payoff is marvelous. Very lean beef comes finely minced and mixed with mitmita (an extremely hot spice) and Ethiopian-style cottage cheese. This dish is reminiscent of steak tartare.
Zilbo could pass for American soul food. It's a soupy, satisfying stew of mildly spiced beef, collard greens and potato.
A portion of Blue Nile's menu is labeled weekend specials, but Taddesse Meja is pleased to oblige weekday requests. If necessary, beg for the begerdan, which is a blend of silky eggplant simmered with bell peppers, tomatoes, collard greens, red onions and spices. Shrimp atkilt is another basic but beautiful blend, uniting firm crustaceans with tender string beans, carrots and cauliflower in a mild sauce.
Gored gored is gorgeous, dredging morsels of choice lean beef in a traditional sauce of milled pepper thickened with wine, Ethiopian butter and spices. Served raw or very rare, the small mound of meat chunks can be a bit chewy, but are intensely vinegary and devilishly spicy. Bozena shurro is another lapel-grabbing meal, mixing cubes of lean beef with highly seasoned milled chickpeas simmered in berbere.
Rather than feeling threatened by this new restaurant, Lalibela should consider itself lucky. Blue Nile is helping broaden the Ethiopian adventure, offering more exposure to one of the world's most delectable cuisines.