After being thoroughly disappointed with the one Ethiopian meal I had in Washington D.C., I began pining for a good meal at Blue Nile -- my favorite Ethiopian restaurant here in Houston as well as the place where I'd first tried the cuisine many years ago. And then I remembered: Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant & Lounge had just opened in a high-profile location along Highway 59 south of Hillcroft. Why not give this new place a try instead?
So I corralled some friends together for a family-style meal at Lucy -- after all, eating family-style is the best way to eat Ethiopian food -- and headed south one Saturday night. I think we were all astonished to walk inside what looks as if it were once a Golden Corral to find the building transformed into an elegant, casually chic restaurant with three distinct areas: a full bar, an Ethiopian-style lounge packed with people dining on the floor and a tall-ceilinged dining room lined with moddish crystal chandeliers and a softly flowing waterfall.
Although Blue Nile has come leaps and bounds since it first opened in its little Richmond strip center, it's still safe to call it a hole-in-the-wall, albeit a clean and well-kept one. Lucy, on the other hand, is a flat-out destination. And one that I think will be ideal for introducing newcomers to the cuisine, thanks to its friendly waitstaff and lush, inviting interior.
Upon seeing a flood of new customers into her restaurant, Lucy's owner shuffled away some of her friends occupying a large, communal table and tsk-tsk'ed at them to go sit at a smaller one. My friends and I chuckled at this, although we were a bit embarrassed to take their spot in one corner of the main dining room. (The displaced diners, for what it's worth, barely seemed to notice that they'd been moved, so deep in Amharic conversation were they.)
I was almost afraid to look at the menu, as I know that prices have gone up considerably at places such as Sheba Cafe and Blue Nile in the past few years. Surely at this lovely, far more upscale restaurant, the prices would be painful. Not so, I found: a vegetarian combo with six items (meant to feed two to three people) was $17 while a full combo platter of meats and stews (again, for three or four people) was $27. My friends and I went whole-hog and ordered a round of combo platters -- three vegetarian plates, two meat-and-stew combos, plus a few more dishes of doro wat, tibs and kitfo.
My second fear was that the portions would be miserly. I've seen this trend at even the Ethiopian restaurants I like: Where you would once get a platter of lentils and greens and cabbage all piled high and overlapping onto each other, now it's more common to see several inches of room between each spoonful of food.
The food at Lucy, however, came out hot, fresh and in heaping portions. So big were the portions, in fact, that my table only finished a little over half of the food we ordered. The kitfo -- one dish that a few folks were nervous about ordering -- was a huge hit, the raw beef so well seasoned that one friend remarked he'd never know it was the Ethiopian version of steak tartare. Our vegetarian combo platters contained bright, jewel-toned scoops of red and yellow lentils, dark green collard greens, savory stewed cabbage -- all of it deeply seasoned with fragrant garlic and ginger.
And the doro wat, my personal favorite, had that signature deep red hue from the berbere spice mix used to impart a dusky spiciness to the stewed chicken, the same deep red color that always stains my fingers through the sheets of tart injera bread used as edible spoons. And the bread kept coming, something I appreciated considering that many places have started charging for extra baskets of the stuff.
All in all, with a bottle of wine, several additional glasses, Cokes and our tremendous assortment of food, we ended up paying only $35 a person. With tax and tip. We walked away stunned, satiated and -- at least on my part -- incredibly eager for a return visit. Which, next time, will take place in that cozy lounge.