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Indeed, the gesho — Rhamnus prinoides — is a native Ethiopian shrub used in the production of both honey wine and Ethiopian beer. The leaves can be bitter, but the young wine is sweet. It gets dry as it ferments. A friend of mine who has sampled Blue Nile's house-brewed tej says it's very sweet and cold and packs an unexpected wallop. "I barely made it home," she confessed.
Devorah, Truman and I stuck with less potent beverages, including a delicious, slightly carbonated concoction called gingebel, a combination of fresh ginger and lemon, pineapple and (maybe) orange juices. (Our server wasn't sure and didn't ask Fikru.) There's a delicious cold-spiced tea on the menu, too, which we sipped while eating a starter: meatless sambusas — fried pastry triangles filled with seasoned lentils, cabbage and chopped carrots — which we dipped in a red-chili sauce called berbere.
The best way to sample all of the Blue Nile's vegetarian dishes at once is to order the expensive but easy-to-share combination plate: an injera pancake dotted with little mounds of slightly bitter but delicious gomen (stewed collard greens), misir watt (a red-lentil stew seasoned with ginger, garlic, cardamom and the African chili powder known as berbere), atiklett (a wonderful, garlicky mash of cabbage and potatoes), yekik watt (slow-cooked, seasoned yellow split peas), fosolia (fresh green beans and carrots cooked with onion and spices), shiro (roasted chickpeas and sliced mushrooms in a brassy red sauce), dinich watt (potato chunks in garlic and berbere), and the little garbanzo-bean balls called shimbera assa (in a mildly spiced gravy with a hint of nutmeg).
Devorah seemed overwhelmed by the embarrassment of meatless riches, but Truman and I dug into the platter as well. We had also ordered meat dishes for ourselves: the popular doro watt and yebeg watt. A staple of the Blue Nile's lunch buffet, doro watt is a stew of lemon-marinated chicken pieces, sauteed in butter and herbs and slowly simmered in a red-pepper sauce. It's a moist, perfectly spiced creation and even more satisfying eaten on a sheath of injera with a bit of collard greens. Southern-born Truman says there's a reason that this dish and greens make such a great combination: "It's perilously close to North Carolina barbecue," he says.
Truman liked the curry-flavored sauce in his lamb stew, but we both felt that the lamb was just a shade too leathery, even after stewing. "Maybe I should have ordered a tibbs," Truman said.
The difference between a tibbs dish and a watt, Fikru explained, is that the former is a sauté and the latter is a stew. "In Ethiopia," he says, "tibbs is anything sautéed in a pan with a little oil or butter and, usually, herbs."
On my return visit with Crystal, a vegetarian, I ordered the yesiga tibbs, a beef dish. Crystal was happily settled down with an array of vegan dishes when I received my bowl of beef chunks in a seductively spicy garlic-butter sauce dappled with onion, tomatoes, peppers and fresh rosemary. It looked spectacular, but the meat strips were again disappointingly chewy. I tore pieces of the vaguely sour injera, plucked up a bit of meat and some of Crystal's misir watt and had a satisfying meal anyway.
The desserts at Blue Nile are as American as apple pie without actually being apple pie. "We don't really eat desserts in Ethiopia," Fikru explains. "Maybe a piece of fruit or something savory, like roasted garbanzo beans, with our coffee." Kansas Citians require dessert, though, so Fikru buys good-looking, crowd-pleasing cheesecake and chocolate mousse cake from Cheesecake Factory. "If my customers want a pastry after dinner, I give it to them," he says. Not so authentic, maybe, but even vegetarians occasionally prefer cheesecake to roasted garbanzos.