Spice Remix 

Food Review: A revamped Nile Ethiopian Restaurant gives ancient flavors a modern make-over.

click to enlarge Beef sambusas at the Nile are a flavorful example of new menu offerings at the recently renovated Ethiopian restaurant in the Fan.

Ash Daniel

Beef sambusas at the Nile are a flavorful example of new menu offerings at the recently renovated Ethiopian restaurant in the Fan.

There isn't a wait for a table, yet. But there will be. Recent renovations to Nile Ethiopian Restaurant on Laurel Street definitely have perked up the place. There are fewer foreboding corners, more wood and soft edges. Music is a few decibels lower and everything feels just a bit less collegiate — including the food.

On a busy Saturday night, service couldn't be better. While explaining dishes in great detail, our server — with just three weeks of training — walks us patiently through the menu without provocation as if she were in the kitchen cooking the food herself. If the mind-set for this meal is a guided journey — first, second or ninth visit — everyone at Nile will assist on the path.

We start with sambusas ($3.25), stuffed pastries that are lighter than expected. Mashed and lightly spiced lentils or ground beef are piped into airy dough, an exceptional kickoff to several spectacular dining experiences. Another evening, the vegan duo ($6.75) sets the tone for a memorable dinner. Toasted injera, a spongy bread, is wrapped similarly to a burrito around gingery collards and spicy red lentils. The effect is savory and sweet, soft and crunchy.

Main dishes are equally appealing. Yemisir wat ($6), red lentils in a reduced berbere sauce, hits all the right garlic, ginger and chili notes with a lurking spiciness. Aterkik alicha ($6.50), yellow lentils, is structurally similar to run-of-the-mill refried beans, but intensely flavored with turmeric and even more ginger. Fasolia ($7) mixes toothsome and tangy string beans and carrots. Inguday tibs ($7.50) are one of our server's favorites and for good reason. Deeply tender mushrooms are earthy and meaty with every bit as much oomph as any meat dish can provide.

Kitfo ($14.95) shouldn't be overlooked, but only if ordered raw. Lean beef is finely minced and combined with mitmita, incredibly spicy pepper and cardamom. While chopped raw meat can sound like a turn-off from a textural standpoint, this decidedly is not. Our server instructs us to make tiny injera sandwiches by stacking kitfo and chopped collards with the appealing beef, a winning combination.

If you're less adventurous, or easing into Ethiopian cuisine, as opposed to running into it full force, doro dulet ($14.50) is much more familiar. Chopped chicken is sautéed in the same mitmita with garlic and jalapeños, with enough spice to make your nose sweat a bit. And for the even less adventuresome, Nile makes a notable grilled chicken wrap ($7), simple and straightforward with a ginger- and white-wine-marinated chicken breast.

The wine list has been pared down to boring but does have one Ethiopian offering, a sweet white. While it could be considered cloying on its own, when paired with the creeping spice of most dishes, it's just another smart choice.

The majority of the menu is gluten-free and there are copious options for vegan and vegetarian diners. Be prepared to take food home as leftovers, and possibly with direction. Before leaving on our last visit, we get detailed instructions on how to incorporate the mushrooms, yellow and red lentils and injera into scrambled eggs. The result is a dish Ethiopians refer to as fit-fit.

With Nile's complexity and fine service in an inexpensive, delicious package, reservations soon may be a necessity. S

Nile
309 N. Laurel St.
225-5544
Lunch: Tuesday-Sunday noon-3 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday 5-10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 5-11 p.m.
Sunday 5-9 p.m.
nilerichmond.com

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