Nile restaurant opened on Magazine St. on June 26, joining Café Abyssinia as the city's only restaurants serving the cuisine of Ethiopia. It's a work in progress; as of this writing there's no liquor license, and the menu is not as fully developed as I expect it will be. But what I've had of the food has been good, and if the service isn't white-tablecloth professional, it's friendly.
I first noticed the restaurant when the facade of the space at 2130 Magazine St. got a new coat of paint and a tastefully understated sign. Looking through the diaphanous white drapes in the restaurant's windows, it looked as though the place might be a more upscale restaurant than Café Abyssinia. The dining room is a bit more refined than the converted apartment which serves that purpose at its upriver neighbor, but Nile is not what you'd call a fancy restaurant. Tables are covered with light green cloth, there's ample light coming in from the windows facing Magazine and a panoramic mural of the blue Nile falls occupies one wall.
When I wrote about Café Abyssinia in December of 2010 I mentioned that my first exposure to Ethiopian (or in that case, Eritrean) food was at a wedding. I never did get around to cooking the food, and I ended up discarding the teff flour I'd ordered online instead of using it to make injera. My motivation for learning about the cuisine was mostly because if I didn't cook it myself, there was little chance I was going to eat it again. When an Ethiopian restaurant opened, that motivation was removed.
I mention all of this because Ethiopian food is one of a number of cuisines with which a lack of firsthand experience leaves me less qualified to tell you how the key wot made with lamb that I tasted measures against the ideal version of the dish. I can tell you it was good, and I can tell you what it tasted like. Because I've read about the cuisine and asked questions I can even tell you something about how it is prepared, but that's about it. Having said that, unless you're from east Africa or have spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C., you probably have less experience with Ethiopian food than I do.
The menu at Nile is limited. There are no appetizers for example, and the best way to taste more than a single dish is to go with friends and share. That or just order too much food and bring some of it home with you.
The food comes on large platters that are covered with injera, the spongy flatbread that's key to Ethiopian cuisine. It's made with a sourdough batter and it's slightly sour. Unless you ask, it's also the only utensil you're likely to get at Nile. Though it's perfectly suited for that purpose. The exception to the utensil rule is when you order a dish that comes with a salad, but I can't really recommend you do that. The salad I had with the key wot was chopped romaine lettuce and tomatoes with a bottled Italian dressing. It was actually not that bad with the spicy stew, because the dressing was sweet, but it's not something I'd order on purpose. I gave up after a few bites.
That wot, though, was exceptional. It's made with a hefty dose of the spice mix called berebere which contains enough chiles to give it a pleasant, but not overwhelming, heat. It's a complex, rich dish and one you should be careful eating; the brick-red stew is the sort of thing you'll have trouble getting out of your clothes if you're a messy eater. Key wot can be made with beef, too, and both meats also come in a curried stew called alicha wot. It was only a couple of days between my first and second meals at Nile, and in that time they'd already eliminated one dish from the menu – Dulet was advertised as lamb tripe, liver and meat cooked with spiced butter and vegetables. I like offal, and was looking forward to trying it, but perhaps it will come back as a special at some point.
One of the classic dishes of Ethiopian cuisine is a chopped beef dish called kitfo that traditionally is served raw and at Nile can also be had somewhat cooked. My server was a bit vague on just how cooked it would have been. However you order it, the dish is seasoned with cardamom and a house-made spiced butter and served with a dry crumbled cheese (which the menu describes as “cottage cheese,” but which is nothing like the stuff in American grocery stores) and a pungent, spicy condiment for dipping. The beef was perfect when I had it, though my definition of perfect where beef is concerned includes a category for raw meat. It's got a distinctive flavor from the cardamom, but as powerful as that spice can be, it doesn't overwhelm the flavor of the meat at Nile. The cheese is dry and slightly sweet, and the condiment reminded me of nothing so much as a central american chile paste, with a sharp acidic edge and serious depth of flavor from peppers, cumin and other spices. The kitfo was not served over injera, but in a bowl with the accompaniments alongside and rolled injera for scooping up handfuls.
The vegetarian portion of the menu includes a combination of six vegetable dishes called Yesom Beyaynetu. When I dined there were two lentil stews, another of yellow split peas, a dish of carrots and potatoes cooked with chiles and tomato, some greens that would not have been out of place on a Southern buffet (though minus the pork) and a dish of cabbage, potatoes and carrots. The two lentil dishes looked similar, but one was spicy and the other almost sweetly rich with butter. There was some curry in the yellow split peas, which was also a slightly sweet dish. The cabbage and potato dishes were good if unremarkable. The combination is a good way to get a sense for what the cuisine is about, and it's a pretty fair amount of food. Like just about everything else on the menu, the Yesom Beyaynetu is served over injera.
I'm told that the menu remains a work in progress, and that among other changes desserts like the fried pastries called sambusas are in the works. The restaurant is also in the process of obtaining a liquor license, but for the time being they aren't charging a corkage fee. Nile is located at 2130 Magazine St., and you can call (504) 281-0859 to get more information.