Smell the Coffee

Having sealed my flavor adventures, the next thing I discovered was that I remain a lousy cupper: You're supposed to swish and spit, not swallow the coffee grounds and all, but, of course, I did, so I had to spend the rest of the night running circles round the chandelier and gibbering to the tune of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon."

Later in the week, mostly recovered, I made a pilgrimage to Addis Ababa, the bright little storefront of an Ethiopian restaurant situated across from Fairview-Riverside hospital. This little place, which dishes up fresh, lively versions of Ethiopian stews for around $7 a meal, also serves an Ethiopian coffee that is truly a revelation. (The menu says the coffee service is only done weekdays, but the staff assures me it can be had anytime; one $5.95 order is enough for one or two people.)

The adventure begins with your server roasting a handful of beans in a small pot with a long handle and a screen bottom; at one point the server brings them to your table, shaking the pot so the beans make a skittering noise like maracas and gray smoke spills out like a waterfall. The server then disappears into the kitchen, giving you time to contemplate that people around the world prepared coffee in a similar contraption until the early 20th Century: If Wild Bill Hickock or Charles Dickens drank coffee, it was roasted like this.

Daniel Corrigan

The coffee eventually returns to your table on a tray that holds two small espresso-sized cups, a pitcher of sugar, a beautiful, black, round-bottomed earthenware pot resting in a straw base, and, most dramatic, an hourglass-shaped stand of glowing incense. It's a terribly impressive display: In the billowing cloud of smoke, coffee seems magical the way it must have been back when the first cups were brewed and people dreamed up the story of the dancing goats. (Legend has it that the effect of caffeine was discovered when a goatherd found his charges hippity-hopping around a particular tree. He figured out they had munched the berries, soon he did the same, and a few millennia later there I was, circling the chandelier.)

The Addis Ababa coffee tastes mainly big and smoky, and a few herbal notes may or may not be detectable--it's hard to taste anything when your nose is full of incense. I tried filling my cup up with sugar, and the doubly potent brew made me feel awfully exotic, even more so since Xena, Warrior Princess was playing on the TV in the corner. After a lot of sipping and sniffing, I emerged back on the streets quick-hearted and bright-eyed, a little goatlike, and maybe a little less attractive to bugs.

See, it turns out that one of science's best guesses as to the role of caffeine is that it's nature's own Deep Woods Off!, keeping insects from devouring the otherwise tasty beans. But nature's best-laid plans went awry: What bugs found distasteful commuters found highly desirable, and the rest is history.

TABLEHOPPING

BENVENUTA, ALMA: Minneapolis could desperately use a couple of great Italian restaurants, and I'm crossing my fingers that southeast's new Restaurant Alma will be one of them. Alma, which means "soul," has been three years in the making by Jim Reininger, who used to own Lowry's, the restaurant that occupied the spot where Auriga is now. I remember Reininger's hand most in that restaurant's excellent breads, but it turns out he's also a wine aficionado who most recently worked as a wine consultant at Surdyk's. He says one of his favorite pastimes at the store was to spot people standing slack-jawed and glassy-eyed in front of a bottle: "I'd walk up to them and say: 'Okay, what was the name of the restaurant and how much did you pay for it?'" An avowed enemy of the 300-percent markup, Reininger vows that his mostly European list will be both well-chosen and well-priced, with most wines costing $20 to $40 and extraordinary vintages from his own collection rounding out the top.

The chef at the dinner-only, 50-seat Alma will be Alex Roberts, a French Culinary Institute-trained chef who returns to Minneapolis after a stint behind the lines in such New York hot spots as Bouley, the Union Square Café, and the Gramercy Tavern. Reininger says the menu will initially focus on braised, long-cooked entrées priced between $12 and $18, and there will also be a three- or four-course tasting menu every night.

Reininger says he hasn't set an exact opening date (though he acknowledges it will probably come next week), and he actively discourages any fanfare: "We really want a quiet open," he explains. "There are a lot of people who are very interested in new restaurants and can overwhelm a new restaurant that's finding its legs. We don't want to be knocked off course first thing.

"Though why I'm talking to you," he muses, laughing in a pained sort of way, "isn't exactly clear to me." (Restaurant Alma will open at 528 University Ave., Minneapolis., (612) 379-4909

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