The Raw and the Cooked

The trouble with rushing off to brand-new restaurants is that occasionally you blunder into one that is not quite ready for prime time. My recent evening at the Blue Nile, a Spartan Ethiopian place that just opened on far western Richmond, was a textbook illustration of this particular peril.

The Blue Nile had sounded so promising. The chef was fresh from Washington, D.C., where the Adams-Morgan neighborhood fairly jumps with good Ethiopian spots, and where a constant parade of Ethiopians (surely the best-looking humans on the planet) makes for sublime people-watching. The menu boasted an unusual variety of exotic vegetable dishes, a couple of Italian items drawn from the country's colonial past and even a clutch of Ethiopian breakfast specialties served on weekends and holidays. The names alone exuded an incantatory power: zilzil tibs, timatim fitfit, yemisser wot.

But this spicy, hands-on, no-utensils-allowed cuisine can unnerve even in more polished circumstances than those at the Blue Nile, where the food was good but the experience grew weirder and weirder. Although there were only two other patrons in the bare-bones dining room and the even-more-bare-bones adjacent bar, the sole waitress seemed reluctant to approach us. Finally, she produced huge tumblers full of the worst iced tea imaginable. "What beer do you have?" inquired one of my despairing companions. "Miller," she answered. There was a long silence. "I guess I'll have a Miller," he said weakly. Suddenly the bar-with-one-beer looked even grimmer.

My hopes revived with our first course of kitfo, the Ethiopian version of steak tartare. Scooped up with torn-off scraps of the spongy flatbread called injera, the raw minced beef was pristine and faintly buttery, laced with red pepper and mysterious Eastern spices. The crumbly Ethiopian cheese that served as a counterpoint lulled us further -- cottage cheese plus!, we told ourselves -- and even the clammy, grayish swaths of injera began to take on a comforting familiarity.

So what if the Blue Nile, with a large grocery store right across the street, had inexplicably run out of chicken? We'll take the Gored Gored, we told the waitress bravely, liking the sound of it. But when she brought the bowl of "tender beef cubes lightly steeped with specially spiced butter and berbere sauce," we found, to our astonishment, that they were raw. It was a fact the menu had not bothered to mention. Eventually, we communicated to our reticent waitress that we had had enough raw meat for one evening. A substitute was produced: friskily seasoned beef stew called banatu, hiding shyly under a blanket of injera and fleshed out with still more pieces of injera mixed in.

There was enough for a small army, especially with Gomen, a splendidly garlicky, olive-oily dish of chopped spinach and a couple more acres of injera, not to mention a pleasant lamb stew in which the advertised jalapeno was evident and the advertised fresh rosemary was not. It was too much food, of course; misled by the extremely modest prices of $5.95 to $6.95 per entree, we had over-ordered. So that was why our waitress had been giving us dubious looks. Finally, we fled into the night, clutching a tower of to-go boxes and wondering whether we'd summon the nerve to return for Ethiopian scrambled eggs and gingered red-lentil stew. For the moment, we had had enough adventure.

-- Alison Cook

Blue Nile, 9400 Richmond, 782-6882.

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