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But no cuisine is as dependent on its spice mixture as Ethiopian. Without berbere, the dishes of this African country would be as tasteless as plain ground beef and as appealing as boiled cabbage. Berbere is the taste of Ethiopian food, since nearly every dish uses at least a pinch of it. But what's in that pinch changes from kitchen to kitchen. Like each family in Ethiopia, each Ethiopian restaurant here in Denver offers its own take on the combination of ginger, cardamom, coriander, fenugreek, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, red chile peppers, paprika, turmeric and black pepper. And although a few places use commercially prepared or imported versions, most mix their own.
Not surprisingly--especially considering the high price of spices--the quality and quantity of these mixtures varies greatly. Some Ethiopian eateries are stingy with the more exotic ingredients, such as fenugreek and cardamom, which are crucial to the depth of flavor the berbere imparts, while others are just stingy, period, and use as little of the spices in the cooking process as they can. And then there's Arada Restaurant, which is so unstinting with its spices that simply walking into the place and smelling the heady aroma gives you a contact high.
When they opened Arada last September, owners Zewdu Desta and Haime Asfaw decided to devote one side of the space to a market--which means that after enjoying the food featuring their own berbere blend, you can buy it in bulk. Haime does the cooking and serves the meals; Zewdu tends the market and helps her between customers. Both are gracious hosts who take pride in their place--and they have reason to. Their menu is much more elaborate than the roster offered at most local Ethiopian eateries--and everything I've ordered off it has been excellent.
The food arrives on a platter covered with injera (also spelled ingera and enjera). That's the essential Ethiopian bread made from teff, a millet-type grain that's combined with water and left to ferment for three or four days, then poured out onto a huge griddle in a spiral shape and cooked until the fermented batter makes a pancake full of bubbles. In restaurants in Africa, injera is used to line the bottom of a basket table (there's one on display in Arada's dining room), which is then layered with more injera and covered with the food. Basket tables aren't the only traditional trapping missing from the Denver dining scene: In Ethiopia, we'd also be sitting on stools, having our hands washed in a ritual fashion and drinking beaker-like glasses of tej, the country's ancient honey wine.
But Arada has made a few improvements on the old customs. For example, our main courses arrived in bowls instead of on top of the injera, allowing us to portion out what we wanted to eat when we wanted to eat it. When all the food's piled onto the bread, it tends to disintegrate, which makes it hard to grab some injera--with your right hand, please, to be polite--to scoop up the last drops of sauce. And we didn't want to miss a drop.
The best, and most common, Ethiopian sauce is wot, which literally means "sauce"; it usually involves berbere cooked with meat until both ingredients collapse into each other. At Arada, wot came with the meat choices of doro, or chicken ($6.50), and siga, or strips of beef ($6). Both versions contained a fair amount of meat for the price--and a generous amount of berbere. Arada's take on the spice mix is aromatic, redolent of cardamom, ginger and shallots, an uncommon but welcome sophisticated touch. It's also light on the chile heat.
Compared to Thailand's idea of hot, Ethiopia's is very tame. When I ordered, Haime asked me how spicy I wanted the food. "Very hot," I replied. She peered at me. "Are you sure very hot?" she asked. I told her I wanted to be sweating, and she laughed. But when she brought the food, she told me, "I didn't want you to sweat too much, so I put more berbere on the side for you to add." After two mild bites, I dumped the rest of the spice mixture onto my kitfo ($6), and I still didn't break into a sweat.
Even without the fire, the kitfo was very good. Arada makes this chopped-beef dish the traditional way--which is raw--only on request, and so the version I received was a rare-cooked one in which the beef had been sauteed in another Ethiopian staple, spiced butter oil, or niter kebbeh. To make niter kebbeh, clarified butter is boiled with many of the ingredients in berbere: garlic, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and turmeric. The turmeric is what gives many Ethiopian dishes, such as Arada's kitfo, a yellowish tinge and a musky undercurrent.
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.