A friend, told that a new Ethiopian restaurant had recently swum into ken, replied flatly, "Ethiopian food is the pits." Until a few weeks ago, I would have agreed. Ever since an early and disastrous venture into Mama Desta's Red Sea, to me, Ethiopian food has meant bits of meat and vegetable awash in vaguely khaki-colored sauce deposited on mouth-puckeringly sour pancakes. Wats or alichas, beef or lamb, everything looked the same, everything tasted the same. The critical encomiums I read here and there left me puzzled -- about the critics, not the food. Having to convey the mess from platter to palate sans knife, fork, or spoon was the final indignity. Dining Ethiopian style became something I preferred to read about rather than engage in.
Fortunately for Chicago, there's Addis, a new kid on the block that breaks this mold. The items on the menu number about 25, not including breakfast fare, and the 12 or so that I've sampled have all been standouts. Meats come variously prepared: sauteed with vegetables, simmered in mild and hot sauces, and, in the case of beef, as first-rate tartare. Vegetarians, who are often shortchanged at Chicago restaurants, get a chance to pick and choose from 11 entrees. Admittedly, just over half involve lentils, chick-peas, or split peas, but the seasonings differ strikingly in these; and potatoes, carrots, spinach, cabbage, and collard greens give color and variety to the rest. Clarified butter imparts a sweet, limpid smoothness to dishes. Red peppers add visual interest and a characteristic piquancy.
Located east of Broadway on Argyle Street, Addis offers prices that are happily on a par with the neighborhood -- i.e., cheap. Meat entrees range from $4 for a single dish to $7 for a two-lamb, one-chicken combination plus salad, while vegetarian offerings begin at $2 and go up to $6 for a three-dish combo. Though the dishes look small, they are surprisingly hearty, and for a scant fistful of dollars a couple can fill up comfortably on two shared dishes, or surfeit themselves on three.
Unfortunately, the decor is also on a par with the neighborhood. Clean but scruffy, the restaurant badly needs a face-lift. You enter a tiny storefront antechamber containing only a couple of kitchen tables and some swivel chairs, walk past a bar on the right, and a small game room on the left, until you reach the dining area. Here there are more kitchen tables and swivel chairs, the former bedecked with maroon cloths and clear plastic. Except for a floor-to-ceiling mural of a waterfall toward the rear of the room, walls are lined with wood-grained paneling halfway up from the floor, while earth-toned geometric carpeting completes the journey to the ceiling. The ceiling, dotted with fluorescent lights that cast a dull, harsh glow, exhibits the scars of walls torn down to enlarge the space. A television set on one side, a piano on the other, a few pictures here and there, constitute the rest of the interior design.
Once the food arrives, however, the ambience is easy to ignore. Service is provided by Daniel Haile, the friendly and knowledgeable brother-in-law of owner/chef Elizabeth Yirgu, who patiently guides patrons through the intricacies of ingredients and preparations. Haile brings to the table a large platter lined with oversized sourdough flapjacks called injera. Onto these he spoons separate mounds of the dish or dishes ordered; the diner uses a pinched-off piece of injera to scoop up the meat or veggie. This is finger food with a vengeance. Paper napkins help control the inevitable spillage. Long fingernails, while not incapacitating, are definitely de trop.
Eating Ethiopian is a communal act in more than the usual sense. Reaching across the table to tear the injera provides a deeper sense of sharing than individual plates and knives and forks do. The more people there are, and the more dishes ordered, the more mounds there will be on the one platter, or for a really large crowd, several platters. Everyone partakes from the central platter (additional injera is brought as needed), so it's best to go with those whose microbes you are willing to share .
A word about the injera. In Ethiopia it is made from teff, a grain unknown in the United States, which looks like miniature caraway seeds and is rich in iron. Most Ethiopian restaurants in this country make their injera from millet, which produces pancakes more sour and less resilient than those made from teff, and more likely to come apart in one's fingers. Elizabeth Yirgu gets her teff from an Idaho grower. Her injera has just the right degree of elasticity to make tearing and scooping easier, and its mild tang counterpoints the rich sauces instead of overwhelming them. It's also nice to know that the teff injera served at Addis is, according to Ms. Yirgu, free of pesticides and preservatives.
On our first visit, we concentrated on the vegetarian entrees, all of which deserve accolades. Vegetable Mix ($3.50), boiled potatoes combined with carrots and cabbage sauteed in butter, was flavored with spices that imparted a rich sweetness to the dish. Kik Wat ($3.50), yellow split peas simmered in a red pepper sauce, was lightly spiced and pungent. Kosta ($3.50), described on the menu as seasoned spinach, tingled with tart and buttery nuances. Azifa ($2.50), lentils and onions served cold in a light vinaigrette, provided a sprightly contrast to Yemisir Wat ($3.00), the same lentils stewed whole in a mild sauce made from sweet red peppers and butter. Shuro Wat ($2.50), highly seasoned powdered chick-peas, also in a red pepper sauce, held tantalizingly tangy, almost smoky, overtones. Other vegetable offerings, as yet unsampled by me, include lentil soup, collard greens, and a salad of lettuce and tomatoes.
Carnivores will find nine beef, three lamb, and two chicken dishes to choose from. My favorite so far is Kitfo ($5.00), a beef tartare made from finely minced, exceptionally lean beef mixed with hot spices mellowed in clarified butter. The dish can also be ordered cooked rare, but it loses the bright lively flavor of the raw version and becomes just pleasant, underdone hamburger. Doro Wat ($4.75), chicken stewed in red pepper sauce and served with a hard-boiled egg, is rich, sweet, and satisfying, but a challenge to the novice injera eater, as the chicken must be torn from the bone and the egg has as much traction as a wet bar of soap. Kay Wat ($4.75), ground beef in a sweet red pepper sauce, another good bet, is an Ethiopian version of a fine chili.
The two lamb dishes I've tried can both be recommended. Tibbs ($5.00) is a meaty stew of tiny tender chunks of lamb sauteed with onions, green chilies, and tomatoes, mildly spiced and imbued with essence of onion. Yebeg Wat ($.50), the hottest dish by far, married succulent lamb cubes with hot peppers in a pungent sauce that seemed mild at first, but gradually built to a crescendo of heat in the mouth. Those who shy from killer peppers have been forewarned.
Beer is the drink of choice with Ethiopian food, but unregenerate yuppies can order Perrier. Tej, Ethiopian honey wine, is listed on the menu but was not available on any of my visits. Ethiopian coffee, a medium-bodied but moderately strong brew, is flavored with cinnamon and clove, as is the tea. Dessert in Ethiopia tends to be fresh fruit, but for the present time none is offered.
Addis, at 1020 W. Argyle, is open daily from 11 AM to 10:30 PM; closed Tuesday. For further information, call 728-0288.