A Cure for the Twentieth Century
2027 E. Franklin Ave., Mpls.; 338-3000.
I have seen the best minds of my generation sit hunched over like fetal weasels trudging through digital sludge, emerging with nothing but crooked spines, irrelevance, prurience, kitsch, and statistics. Which has really made me appreciate the Blue Nile.
But let me explain: I had a humdinger of a time putting together this week's review. I got back from the restaurant, threw off my eye patch and kerchief, and sat down at the computer, determined to find a simple, doable Ethiopian recipe to include in the column.
I found out a lot of things about all foods Ethiopian: that teff, the staple highland grain used in injera (the flat Ethiopian bread that serves as platter, eating utensil, and basic food), is super-healthy, containing twice or three times as much protein, calcium, potassium, and other minerals than are found in other grains like wheat or barley. I discovered that teff is the only grain that has a symbiotic yeast, like grapes do, which allows it to ferment speedily and creates the bread's sourdough-like bite and characteristic bubbles.
I found that the earliest known hominids lived in the Great Rift Valley, which traverses Ethiopia from southwest to northeast; that lots of people who are not Indiana Jones believe that the Ark of the Covenant (the golden chest Moses built to hold the Ten Commandments) is not at all lost but doing just fine in a church in Aksum, Ethiopia. I found that Queen Sheba is: the mother of the king who brought the Ark to Ethiopia; the best Ethiopian restaurant in Tokyo; a perfume for sale from a West Palm Beach head shop; and the name of a tortoiseshell tabby in northeast Oklahoma who "decided to try my paw (hand) at creating a Web page... [and who likes] begging when [human companion] Daryl tries to eat."
Yet I couldn't find any reasonable recipes. One required eight kilos of butter and three hens; another needed 11 cups of peas and equal parts, to taste, of cayenne and rue. (Rue, according to the only definition I could find, is "any strongly scented plant of the genus Ruta" and presumably a little difficult to find at your local SuperValu.) The rest of the recipes required spice mixes composed of dozens of ingredients, such as berbere--a powder that includes cayenne, paprika, fenugreek, ginger, and cloves--or Mit'in Shiro, a heavily spiced mixture of ground lentils, split peas, and chick peas.
Then, finally, in those wee hours of the night when stable citizens start smacking their snooze buttons and messing with fluoride, when infants cry, cats mew, and people who've been up all night staring at a computer screen watch their retinas detach and float around their eyeballs, I finally found some recipes for Ethiopian dishes that were not too difficult, esoteric, or vague. And lo and behold, upon checking the small print of the Australian Web site that housed them, I discovered they were lifted from the Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant Cookbook, a vegetarian classic that had been on a shelf two feet from my shoulder the whole time.
Now on to the Blue Nile, a place where pre-tech, low-tech, and no-tech longings are not only indulged in, but celebrated. The injera (known in another dialect as bideena) is handmade from teff (also called T'ef, T'eff, and T'ej), as it has been for thousands of years, and it is absolutely delicious. All the best things on the menu--the Raafuu, a kale, carrot, and veggie blend ($7.95), the Missira Diimaa, a berbere-spiced red-lentil dish ($6.95), and the Fasuuliya ($6.95), a string-bean-and-veggie concoction--are as basic as can be.
And since the food is served communally on a big platter of injera, some creative ordering--say, one person requesting the Fasuuliya and another a Gosa-Gosa sampler--is easy to facilitate at minimal expense. The Gosa-Gosa A, which includes half a dozen vegetarian entrées, runs $9.95; the Gosa-Gosa B (three meat dishes and the half-dozen vegetarian options) costs $12.95; Gosa-Gosa C is for two people, and the $17.95 price buys half a dozen each of meat and vegetarian selections.
In fact, the Blue Nile is so pre-tech that frivolous spending, the very bedrock of modern life, is thoroughly discouraged. I can hardly imagine anyone ordering an appetizer twice: The sambusas ($4.75/$4.95), deep-fried pastries stuffed with lentils or beef, come in teeny-tiny portions and are underseasoned. The Baajiya ($4.95), fried chick-pea patties, are basically flattish falafel served plain. And while the Shafut ($5.50) is tasty, this cold dish of leftover injera soaked in spicy buttermilk is so rich and dense it's a total appetite killer. (Nor does it seem to make much sense to precede a meal of injera with a plate of injera.)
More injera can be found in the bread pudding ($3.50), where it's soaked with cinnamon, raisins, and a sauce that tastes suspiciously like melted vanilla ice cream. If you order the bread pudding and suddenly turn into a Monty Pythonite chanting, "Spam, spam, spam, spam," don't blame me.
Wines by the glass should be avoided as well: Every one I tried was flat and skunky, as if it had been left open for far too long. I recommend going with one of the ample beer selections or ordering from the full bar. You can also happily choose from the low end of the menu without fearing that the higher-priced dishes are in some way superior: Exactly the opposite is true. The priciest dish on the menu, the Haniida ($13.95), is also the worst. My plate contained two "grilled and marinated" lamb shoulder slices, bone dry and riddled with fat and gristle, holding only maybe two silver-dollar-sized portions of actual meat. The side of Atriya, a "delicate pasta browned with spices," was clumpy, oily, and didn't contain any obvious spices other than salt.
Another comparatively pricey dish, the Sangaa Akaawii ($9.95)--beef cubes described as "tender" and "braised"--was essentially a salad of dry and incredibly tough cubes of beef and fresh jalapeño slices. In contrast, the Maraka Lukuu ($7.75), a dish of chicken on the bone served in a thick, rich sauce of tomato and niter kebbeh (a strongly spiced butter), was delicious, deeply flavored, tender, and luscious. All entrées at the Blue Nile come with two vegetable side dishes, yogurt, an earthy hot sauce, and a side basket of injera. Your goal is to use the injera as a utensil so that your fingers neither touch the stews nor your mouth. Up the ante by feeding your companions bites of food without touching their mouths--it's both a symbol of your regard for them and a test of your finger skills.
The Blue Nile often features live music, and the atmosphere can get hopping. The waitresses on my visits were very good-natured--one wouldn't let me order an extra appetizer because it would ruin my appetite--if amateurish: Another couldn't answer a single question about anything on the menu, even after heading to the kitchen for answers. Servers do leave full carafes of water on the table, which I appreciate, and once you embrace the no-frills/good-lentils ethos of the place, the lack of fine-dining perks might just seem that much more charming. Sometimes a very, very old-fashioned meal based on ancient grains is the perfect counterpoint to an electricity-soaked life.
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