Ethiopian utopia

If you like multiethnic eating experiences, you can try your luck at the food court at any mall, but it’s likely all you’ll find is homogenized Chinese, Japanese and Mexican food. Or you can head to the corner of Fulton and Alta Arden, where Moroccan, Japanese and Ethiopian restaurants peacefully coexist in one block.

Addis Ababa is only four months old but promises to shine as one of the brighter stars in the area, if it can lure discerning customers in to sample its exotic cuisine. Previous experiences at Ethiopian restaurants had left me with the impression that their food consisted largely of greasy, bland stews, but Addis Ababa dispelled that notion in a hurry. Its dishes, without exception, were bright and mouth-tingling without being overpowering.

The restaurant is small but pleasant, with the walls painted a soothing sky blue and decorated with travel posters. The Ethiopian music was slightly too loud but helped set the mood. This is definitely a family operation, with mom, dad and daughter on hand to cook, serve and ring up your meal. All three offer a friendly welcome and are eager to answer any questions diners might have.

All the food is served family-style. If you are a neophyte to Ethiopian dining, that means that your choices are served on a large tin platter for everyone to help themselves. Diners do not receive utensils. Instead, you scoop up your portion with pieces of injera, a flat, spongy bread that looks and tastes somewhat like a sourdough pancake. There is a large injera under the food as well, to help sop up the juices. While at first the portions seemed small, the flatbread is amazingly filling. And the younger members of your dining party will find that injera can be squished to make a substance remarkably similar to Silly Putty, a useful property for when they grow bored with the adult conversation.

The menu offers some useful hints for those unfamiliar with the cuisine, and guides those with more timid palates to the milder dishes. According to a brief blurb on the inside cover, a dish called kitfo is very popular in Ethiopia; it’s finely minced raw beef mixed with spiced butter and a soft cottage cheese. The waitress tried to discourage us, worrying about our inexperienced Western palates. We ordered it anyway.

The beef in the kitfo actually was not quite raw, as it had been heated with the cheese. The mystery ingredient is something called Ethiopian butter, which lent a faint citrus-y tang to the dish. Given that the majority of the offerings at Addis Ababa are stews, the dish provided a nice textural counterpoint to the rest of the meal.

Other possibilities include minchet abesh, minced beef cooked with garlic, onion, tomatoes, ginger and turmeric. Although we did not request it, we received both a mild and a spicy version of this dish. Both were delicious, especially tasted against the cool sour flavor of the injera.

Other dishes were more reminiscent of Indian curries: siga be-dinich is beef and potatoes in a crushed red pepper sauce; ye-beg alicha is a milder lamb stew; and ye-doro wat is a very spicy chicken stew served with a whole hard-boiled egg. The really adventurous can order dulet, a stew of liver, tripe and beef simmered with onions, green peppers and garlic.

Addis Ababa offers several meat samplers for those who can’t make up their minds, ranging in price from $10.95 to $22.95. (Each dish runs around $7 to $8 á la carte.) The restaurant also offers several interesting vegetarian dishes, including ye-miser wot, a spicy lentil stew, or a vegetarian sampler for $9.95.

The restaurant offers soft drinks, iced tea and a decent selection of beers. But diners should opt for the full experience and try the Harar beer or the honey wine. As its name implies, honey wine is sweet and is somewhat reminiscent of Gewürztraminers. Although it seems innocuous, be warned. It can pack quite a punch.

Sacramento residents can get pretty spoiled. After all, in our fair city we can sample a dizzying variety of cuisines, from Thai to teriyaki. But if even sushi has lost its appeal, Addis Ababa provides a glimpse into a truly exotic culture for jaded diners. But beyond just the appeal of adventure, its food is very good indeed.