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Spice World

Since Ethiopia's brand of Christianity involves a lot of fasting days that prohibit meat, the country's cooks have been very resourceful in coming up with flavorful meatless dishes. But unlike many Ethiopian restaurants, Arada does not offer vegetable sides with its entrees. Instead, it garnishes the platter with fit-fit, an Ethiopian salad of tomatoes, onions and jalapenos, along with fit-fit that's been mixed with pieces of injera and doused with chile-sparked vinegar. We finally got to sample Haime's vegetarian cooking skills with the remarkable leaf spinach entree ($5), an intensely delicious puree of spinach cooked with spiced butter oil and extra garlic.

Still thinking of that spinach, on a return visit we started with two vegetarian items. The yemiser wot ($5), potently spiced split lentils in a berbere-based sauce, had a nice texture--especially compared to the lame, pasty blobs usually passed off as lentils. And the yatakilt alitcha ($5) was an appetizing improvement on standard steamed veggies: fresh potatoes, carrots and cabbage fragrant from a steaming with garlic and ginger. (The mildly seasoned alitcha, which can also be spelled alecha, is a favorite with spice-fearing Americans.)

The entrees piled on more flavors. The yebeg siga alitcha ($6) featured hunks of lamb shank--with plenty of meat on them--that had been stewed with berbere as well as extra ginger and a healthy dose of garlic. The dulet ($8.25) was a country-style combination of ground beef and liver that was not only spicier than anything else we tried at Arada, but also boasted a pungent, earthy flavor underneath all that heat.

Although every other Ethiopian restaurant in town always seems to be out of cottage cheese, Arada had some on hand as a side ($2.50). Essentially the squeaky curds drained of their whey, the cheese was the perfect way to polish off a perfect meal. There's something very satisfying about wrapping some dulet or doro wot in a piece of injera, then topping the mouthful with a sprinkling of cheese.

After just a few bites, Arada had pretty much cemented its status as one of my favorite ethnic restaurants. Not only was the food excellent, but the room was very pleasant: clean and tidy, with red linens and plenty of napkins (you need them when eating Ethiopian). And each time we stopped in, the tables were topped with vases of fresh flowers--an expensive and nice touch that showed just how much the owners care.

The atmosphere at Axum Restaurant, farther east on Colfax, was not nearly as charming. How this eatery managed to trash the old O Sole Mio decor so badly in the three years it's been here, I can't imagine; what had been a slightly run-down but still fetching dining room is now a very run-down dismal space full of plastic flowers and glass-topped tables rimmed with duct tape. The servers were friendly enough, but the food suffered in comparison with Arada's.

If you'd never tried Ethiopian fare before, though, you might not realize what this mediocre fare is missing: specifically, the berbere. Many of Axum's entrees could have been British boiled beef for all the flavor they carried. And on one visit, we found that two cold dishes had an unwelcome extra flavor. The kike ($5.95), a vegetarian dish of yellow lentils cooked with turmeric, onions and ginger, sported the fermented taste not of injera but of lentils past their prime. The gomen ($5.95), chopped collard greens with onions and garlic, also had a funky smell. (On a second visit, both dishes were fresher, but just as insipid.)

The hot foods were better, but not by much. An order of tibs ($6.99) brought greasy chunks of beef that tasted almost exclusively of onions--little or no berbere here. The yebeg alitcha fit-fit ($7.50) contained bony parts of lamb--I swear one piece was an ankle--that had about a half-ounce of meat total, and none of the garlic and ginger promised on the menu. And while we could see the telltale turmeric yellow, its flavor was lost. The gored-gored ($7.75), which was supposed to be "bite-sized pieces of beef tenderloin smothered in spiced hot butter sauce and hot red pepper powder," came out as teeny shreds of beef. Soft and tender, yes, but probably not tenderloin, and with so little spiced anything that eating it was like biting into a smooshy hamburger without the bun. The kitfo ($7.75) was also billed as chopped beef tenderloin--but it, too, had been cooked into drying-out threads. So much for the "rare" treatment this dish is supposed to receive when not served raw. Sadly, during our two meals, we found only one keeper: The lamb dish yebeg tibs ($7.50) had plenty of jalapenos, fresh tomatoes and a sharp, tangy taste from lime juice, onion and garlic.

Ethiopian food is supposed to be cheap and filling, and Axum's certainly delivers on both those counts. But it's also boring. Arada, on the other hand, delivers both variety and the spice of life.

Arada Restaurant, 3504 East Colfax Avenue, 303-329-3344. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.

Axum Restaurant, 5501 East Colfax Avenue, 303-329-6139. Hours: noon to 10 p.m. daily.

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