Injera rules at Nile at Portrait House. Almost everything is served on a cushion of the traditional Ethiopian spongy bread. You could eat with a knife and fork, but indulging in dishes in the traditional manner means using a piece of injera to pinch up bites of meat and vegetables with your fingers. Fair warning to neat freaks: Ethiopian food is messy going. Wear your best duds at your own risk.
For those who don’t worship at the altar of the Richmond dining scene, you could be forgiven if you didn’t notice that the Nile restaurant pulled up stakes from Laurel Street in the heart of Virginia Commonwealth University last summer and made a welcome landing at Portrait House in Carytown.
To reach the main dining room, you pass a bar boasting 24 taps and enough portraits —good, bad and ’70s fugly — to provide conversational fodder for an entire meal. Patio devotees will embrace Nile’s elevated deck, a grandstand view of Carytown’s endless parade of poseurs, suburbanites and out-of-town visitors. In three visits, I’ve yet to meet a server I dislike, finding them attentive and eager to share their passion for and knowledge of Ethiopian food.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church dictates a number of meatless fasting periods, so the cuisine embraces many vegetarian and vegan dishes. There’s plenty of meat to admire too, but vegetables could easily be a carnivore’s focus here.
Consider launching a meal with lentil soup ($4/$6), a tomato-based standout heavy on paprika and boasting more lentils than broth. I hit repeat with gomen ($7.50), chopped collard greens with a light crunch that sing with garlic and ginger. Hefty hunks of toothsome carrots make fasolia shine ($7.50/$12.50), a mélange of string beans and carrots cooked in caramelized onion sauce seasoned with garlic and ginger. Anything but meek, mushrooms sautéed with onions, jalapeños and savory Ethiopian seasonings known as inguday tibs ($8.50/$14) will put your palate on notice.
Settle in with an order of the meat or lentil-filled pastries called sambusas ($6.50/$7.50), crisp from frying and best eaten with awaze, a fiery red chili pepper sauce that gets its heat from the Ethiopian spice blend berbere.
This cuisine is big on long-cooked onions, fresh ginger, garlic, chilies and clarified butter, so flavor is never in short supply. That said, heat’s the subject you may wind up discussing with your server.
After ordering the kitfo sandwich ($9), our server tries to discourage us, but knowing the meat’s intense spiciness spurs us to take on the challenge. Finely minced beef seasoned with herbed clarified butter and the distinctive firepower of mitmita — a blend of chili peppers, cumin and cloves — delivers heat, but it’s balanced by cool and crumbly ayib, a fresh, house-made cheese that’s something of a cottage cheese and ricotta hybrid.
Injera works in harmony with the stewed, simmered and sautéed meats, and the vegetables and legumes that Nile serves atop it, adding a quiet counterpoint to each riotously flavorful mouthful.
Take the beg alicha ($18.95), a dish of braised, minced lamb. The first taste that hits you is the subtlety of turmeric followed by the rich, full flavor of slow-cooked lamb. Doro tibs ($15.95), meaty chunks of chicken breast sautéed with onions, jalapeños, garlic and rosemary, are spiced with awaze, that spicy condiment guaranteed to seduce your taste buds. The masterful layering of flavors makes both dishes noteworthy.
Newbies can dip their toes in the pond at brunch when the familiarity of eggs helps palates acclimate to new spice combinations. Even meat lovers will cotton to a vegetarian omelet ($8.95) exploding with garlicky collards, onions and tomatoes atop shiro, a chickpea sauce. When meat’s a must, there’s the siren call of a minced beef omelet ($9.95) laced with onions, garlic and green peppers. And crunch through injera’s versatility when it’s toasted and stuffed with scrambled eggs and ayib for an Ethiopian breakfast burrito ($7.95).
Among dessert choices — cheesecake, baklava or sorbet — you’ll be hard pressed to find a more soothing or sunny finale than blood orange sorbet after the clamor of spices that proceeds it. Or a better place to begin experiencing the thrill-ride of Ethiopian cuisine. S
Nile at Portrait House
2907 W. Cary St.
Mondays-Fridays 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; Saturdays and Sundays 11 a.m.-2 a.m.
nilerichmond.com or portrait-house.com