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Simmering in Shockoe

Addis Ethiopian amps up the spice factor.

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The veggie combo six at Addis has cabbage, potatoes, collards, lentils, yellow split peas and string beans on injera. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The veggie combo six at Addis has cabbage, potatoes, collards, lentils, yellow split peas and string beans on injera.

With recipes perfected through generations, Ethiopian restaurants have little variation in flavors and spice mixtures to differentiate them. Sure, menu choices differ slightly from one restaurant to another, but you won't find the kinds of regional arguments about the recipe for berbere spice mix as you would for American barbecue sauces.

What sets Ethiopian restaurants apart is their ability to execute the time-honored dishes and bring to your table a quickly cooked kitfo or a slow-cooked doro wat properly prepared and seasoned to perfection. Addis clearly shows potential to become a destination restaurant for Richmonders who want variety in their Ethiopian offerings, but mistakes hold it back from achieving the greatness its ancient culinary dishes demand.

If you're a novice to Ethiopian food, the hallmark is a kind of gluten-free bread, injera, which is served with every dish. Injera is a spongy, sourdoughlike crepe made with an iron-rich super grain known as teff. In lieu of silverware, you break off pieces of injera to scoop up bites of food that are served on top of the bread. Vegetarians are embraced at Addis, and at most Ethiopian restaurants. Historically, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church regularly prescribed fasting from meat, leading chefs to create delicious vegetarian options.

One lunchtime visit to Addis in Shockoe Bottom yields a mostly empty dining room and a helpful, attentive owner who takes an interest in our experience. He brings extra ajib, a cheese similar to feta, to cool the food's fire for my dining companion, who doesn't like spicy foods, and a hot berbere sauce for me because I like the heat. A variety of dishes bring some clear winners and a few that are forgettable.

Two vegetarian dishes are near perfection. The tikel gomen — cabbage cooked in a mild sauce — is fresh and the spice mixture is perfect. Misir wot — red lentils cooked in spicy berbere sauce — also is excellent, the well-cooked lentils making a stewlike texture that's perfect when eaten with the airy and slightly tart injera. Yekik alicha, split peas with onion and garlic, are too dry.

The ye-beg alicha wot, a curry lamb stew cooked with ginger, garlic and spices, disappoints. Long, slow cooking should yield tender chunks of lamb, even with an inexpensive cut of meat. Ours is tough and too chewy, though the spice mixture is on point and the stew is otherwise delicious.

The dining room is clearly livelier at night, with a diverse lineup of artists and musicians for weekend entertainment. The food, however, remains a mixed bag. Kitfo, a quickly prepared dish of raw or rare beef, often is indicative of the chef's skills or the restaurant's willingness to spring for good cuts of meat. Addis' version is mushy and far spicier than the medium heat advertised on the menu.

The ye-beg awaze tibs, another quickly cooked dish, this time with lamb, is tough though the flavors are incredible.

Ethiopian friends tell me you can assess the skill of a restaurant, or a home chef, by the quality of its doro wot — slow-cooked, spicy chicken stew with an unnaturally addictive flavor you simply won't find in any other dish. At Addis, the stew has the correct flavors, but the chicken isn't falling off the bone as it should, and the flavor doesn't permeate the meat, a disappointment to me but an outrage to my dining companion who is far better versed in Ethiopian cuisine than I.

On every visit the chefs at Addis prepare good food with perfect blends of complex flavors and spices, but many meat dishes show problems with execution. The good news is that with clearly excellent recipes guiding the food, a few improvements in the kitchen can make this restaurant a sophisticated crossroads of ancient food culture and Richmond's vibrant music and arts scene. S

Addis Ethiopian Restaurant  
9 N. 17th St.
308-3649
Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner Monday-Thursday 5-11:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 4:30 p.m.-1 a.m.
Addisrichmond.com.

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