Digging In 

Hands-on eating at Richmond's only Ethiopian restaurant.

The Tesfayes came to the United States from Ethiopia more than 20 years ago, but never lost their close connection with their culture. "Cooking should take time," Getaneh says. And so should eating, he adds: "Eating is a holiday. Eating is getting together with friends and family — talking to each other, sharing."

If you've never eaten Ethiopian and have no idea what to expect, don't let that hold you back from giving Nile a shot. There is something for everyone on the menu, from the spicy Berbere dishes that feature a wonderfully rich and earthy red chile paste, to the simple appetizers of beef- or lentil-stuffed pastries called Sambusas (which closely resemble samosas), to the Timatim salad of chopped tomatoes, onions and hot green peppers.

Some main dishes called Tibs are sautéed in butter, onions, ginger, herbs and spices, and come out closely resembling French-style sautées. Others, called Wat, are slow-cooked and earthy with lots of Berbere to kick up the heat and get your blood moving. All good traditional "peasant" cuisines have this in common: They are prepared simply and let the flavors of the ingredients shine. From the dining room you can sneak a peek through the formerly eponymous "hole in the wall" as the truly Ethiopian chefs carefully blend the flavors of each dish. Here the exotic flavors are not overpowered by the red pepper. "Ethiopians like their food spicy, but you should be able to taste all the ingredients," Getaneh says. Still, they'll be more than happy to knock your socks off if you request it.

Two things set Ethiopian cuisine apart. The dishes are served in communal fashion. Entrées are served on a large platter and placed in the center of the table to encourage sharing. The Nile Especial Combination is a great way to sample several dishes and it can be ordered to serve any number of people. With entrees ranging from $9-$15 (the special of five choices occupies the high end), it won't break your budget to try several items.

The other unique aspect is the bread, called Injera, which accompanies each dish and serves as the lining for the platter. Injera is distinct, the kind of thing that once you've had it, you'll never forget. It has an almost crepelike consistency, though thicker and spongier, and its sourdough flavor is so unusual that it causes a very specific craving days later. Once the platter arrives at the table, you simply tear off a corner of Injera and use it to scoop a bit of this and a bit of that. Mixing and matching is encouraged and there is no silverware to be found.

This makes for a wonderful dining excursion for a big group of close friends who are looking for something unique. It's also a wonderful place to dine with children, since the entire restaurant is nonsmoking. And contrary to popular perception, there are several dishes that would be well-suited to kids — not too spicy or too strange. And with servers this friendly anyone would feel welcome, even that little kid in you who really wants to play with her dinner. Wet-nap, anyone? S

Nile Ethiopian Restaurant & Café ($)
309 N. Laurel St.
Lunch: Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Friday 5:30-11 p.m., Saturday 2:30-11 p.m., Sunday noon-9 p.m.


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