I have the same feeling about Ethiopian cuisine that I do about some of my friends: wonderful on certain occasions but not for everyday consumption.
That's not an uncommon reaction to that country's distinctive cuisine — spicy stews, sauteed meats, a soft bread used in place of forks. But even in this meat-and-potatoes community, there's been at least one Ethiopian restaurant in the metro since the early 1990s, dating back to the old Martha's Restaurant in Prairie Village. (Yes, Ethiopian restaurants serve both meat and potatoes but not in any Midwestern fashion.) Today there are three such restaurants, and Daniel Fikru and his wife, Selam, natives of Ethiopia, own two of them: the six-year-old Blue Nile restaurant in the River Market and his latest venture, at 133rd Street and Metcalf in Overland Park.
Fikru is a soft-spoken man but not shy. He proudly proclaims, on the glossy business cards for his four-month-old Blue Nile in Johnson County, that it's "Kansas City's favorite vegetarian restaurant."
Other vegan-friendly restaurants in the city might cry foul, but friends of mine who prefer a meatless existence do indeed favor Fikru's restaurants because of the array of vegetarian dishes — the menu features eight, and Fikru plans to add more — and the assurance that those meals are truly vegan. "In my culture, a vegetarian won't touch any animal product," Fikru says, "not even dairy."
But the new Blue Nile isn't a strictly vegetarian restaurant. The menu boasts beef, lamb and even shrimp, which Fikru doesn't mind serving to customers but doesn't eat himself. In Ethiopia, he explains, Christians observe the culinary commandments of the Old Testament. That's why the Blue Nile serves no pork dishes and no shellfish, except for the one dish that serves up those pink crustaceans in spiced butter with ginger, garlic, turmeric and fresh rosemary. It stays on the menu, Fikru says, because his customers — particularly in the new Johnson County location — love it.
Fikru understands the different demographic in south JoCo. At his smaller River Market location, he sees a lot of young couples. The suburban venue attracts mostly families. No, there's not an actual children's menu here, but kids seem to enjoy the chance to eat grown-up dishes without utensils, using their fingers to squeeze a piece of spongy injera bread to snag a piece of beef or a bit of red-lentil stew. This novel form of eating vegetables might be alluring even to the most hard-core veg-hating child. For one thing, the vegetables at the Blue Nile don't look like typical meatless dishes. The doughy shimbera assa sort of looks like little meatballs.
But not every meatless diner I know lusts after lentils or stewed cabbage with yellow onion and potatoes. "Ethiopian food," says one friend of mine, "looks and tastes mushy and bland."
It's a fair criticism, and I had a little trouble finding dining companions — ones already familiar with the dishes of a culture that dates back to the second century B.C. — who were willing to travel to the new Blue Nile. But finally, two vegetarian friends agreed, and another friend, unfamiliar with Ethiopian cuisine, was eager to try it. On that first visit, I took vegetarian Devorah and meat-loving Truman, who were taken with Fikru's place on sight. The grass-green dining room was perfumed by spicy fragrances wafting out of the kitchen: fresh ginger and onion, garlic and turmeric, rosemary and peppers.
The booths are set up like little bamboo huts, though there's a clear view of the TV screen from every table. (It was tuned to a country-music awards show that evening.) There were only two other occupied tables in the room, and both groups — one was particularly raucous — were indulging in spirits: little glass carafes of pale-yellow tej, a honey wine. "It's a little like mead," Fikru says, "but it's made with the extract of gesho, a kind of hop."