If you travel Main Street with any frequency, you may have seen the little East African restaurant tucked into an aging storefront at 3415 Main, about a block south of a busy midtown McDonald's.
Then again, you can pass Awaze every day and not really notice it. Also working against the place is that it has had three different names in as many years.
The owner has remained the same through each of Awaze's incarnations: Abraham Hadish, a native of Eritrea, the state bordered by Sudan to the west and Ethiopia to the south. Since Hadish opened his first restaurant, Duo, in 2010, he has worked with different business partners, and his concepts have evolved. The one constant has been a simple one, though: excellent Ethiopian food.
Hadish never really closed Duo. He just changed the name last year to Hebesha. And then, three months ago, Hadish took on a new business partner, Jamaican-born chef Pablo Brown, who added his own culinary imprint to the venue. The restaurant is now called Awaze (the name comes from a head-spinning berbere mix of spices, including garlic, ginger and salt; say a-wäh-zay), and it serves both Ethiopian dishes and traditional Jamaican favorites, such as jerk chicken and curried shrimp.
There's a big bar on the north side of the long, gray dining room, well-stocked with an array of liquor bottles. There's no bartender, however, and Hadish says customers sometimes volunteer to show him how to mix a certain cocktail. "But I'm learning," he says.
There's going to be a bartender on duty at least one night soon, though. On Friday, October 11, Hadish and Brown are putting on a grand opening for the not-quite-new Awaze to introduce the updated menu. Alongside Ethiopian favorites such as lamb tibbs, doro watt, and kaey watt, Brown's Jamaican cuisine will include oxtail and stewed goat.
Brown's moist, mahogany-colored jerk chicken really is tasty, and it finds a good complement with a bowl of Abraham Hadish's gomen: slow-cooked collard greens without a hint of bitterness. Hadish also creates one of the most lavish vegetarian platters in midtown, an expansive circle of spongy injera bread that he smothers with mounds of atiklett watt (stewed cabbage, carrots and potatoes), fragrant misir watt (a highly spiced lentil stew), the gomen, and puddinglike (but savory and fiery) shiro.
Hadish, 33, has been cooking professionally since he was a teenager in his home country. "From the start," he says, "I had a plan that I wanted to open my own restaurant, and I did have my own small place in Eritrea."
But Eritrea wasn't the safest place to live, he says, and he filed for political asylum six years ago, moving first to Saudi Arabia and then traveling to the United States. Settling in Kansas City turned out to be easy for him. "It has a very large East African community," Hadish says. "They have settled in parts of Johnson County and the Northland." He learned English, and as soon as he could open a place of his own, he did.
Getting customers into his midtown location hasn't been so simple, though. This stretch of Main Street hasn't been a serious dining destination since the closure, in 1994, of Jimmy and Mary's Steakhouse (now Davey's Uptown Ramblers Club). But Hadish frequently steps out of the kitchen to chat up his diners and turn them into regulars. (Tell him you want a drink, and he's likely to suggest one of his less-complicated alcoholic concoctions, a honey wine that people say goes down easy but packs a dizzying punch.)
There's frequently live music at Awaze on weekends - and dancing, Hadish says, for those who want to work off that wine buzz. Tuesday through Saturday, it's open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday the hours are from noon to 8 p.m. Insider tip: Look for a parking lot behind the building.