Out of the Loop

Addis is a pretty good Ethiopian restaurant with all the charm of a strip-mall liquor store

Jul 9, 2003 at 4:00 am
If you don't know anything about Ethiopian food, here's something to know: It's like pizza. Which is to say, it's a communal eating experience. In its most fundamental form, it is food meant to be eaten by many at once. It's also round. You use your hands. Ingredients are simple -- bread on bottom, meats and vegetables on top -- and often liberally spiced. It can be blue-collared or blue-blooded, unaffected and straightforward or uppity and gourmet (Meskerem, an Ethiopian restaurant in the South Grand-like Adams Morgan section of Washington, D.C., is a perennial rave in the Zagat guide and was touted by former Washington Post critic Phyllis Richman as "an indoor picnic"). And like pizza -- and sex, and Woody Allen movies -- even when it's bad, it's pretty good.

The food at Addis, which recently reopened a couple blocks north of the Loop on Olive after many years spent in the Delmar storefront that Meshuggah now calls home, is pretty good.

The kitchen obviously knows its way around lamb, lentils, peas, beef cubes, cabbage, potatoes and all the other earthy ingredients that make up the staples of Ethiopian cooking. The injera -- the spongy, pancake-thin bread upon which generous heaps of said ingredients are ladled (there are virtually no solid Ethiopian foods), which you then tear off and use to scoop up your chow -- squarely hits the right juncture where elasticity meets squishiness, and carries the slightest trace of sweetness. The chicken (served on the bone as often as off) tastes buttery soft, while lamb fans will find new reasons to fall in love with their beloved sinewy meat, in excellent stewed, simmered and sautéed preparations.

If you still feel you don't know anything about Ethiopian food, here's something else to know: Just order the sampler platters. I first ate Ethiopian food about seven years ago, and I still don't have a clue how to decipher the ethnic terms on the menu. The Ethiopian language makes no mathematical sense to me. How is it that gomen means "chopped spiced greens cooked with onions and peppers," while preceding the term with tekil renders "cabbage, potatoes and carrots sautéed with onions, peppers, garlic and ginger root"? If tibs comprises "beef cubes marinated in a distinctive sauce, then sautéed with onions and jalapeño peppers," while ye beg we't means "lamb simmered in a berbere sauce, ginger root, garlic and cardamom," how does the phrase ye lega tibs -- a dish with no beef, and no mention of this beg or we't -- translate to "lamb sautéed in niter kibbeh seasoned with onions, jalapeño pepper, rosemary and black pepper"? What the heck is niter kibbeh, anyway?

Fortunately, Addis offers two samplers -- one with meat, the other vegan. Either will do a fantastic job of feeding two ravenous adults or three less-hungry ones. The Addis Sampler well represents all segments of the menu, and its mild piles of spinach and tekil gomen (the one item I've finally managed to identify on the plate) play the vital role of cooling the palate as the meal wears on and the spices from the other dishes creep up on you. It is so good that it makes a solid case for adding "Ethiopian" to the list of ethnic foods one mentions when one muses, "I feel like Indian/sushi/dim sum/Thai food tonight." For the 30 minutes it takes to plow one's way through this injera-lined trough of yummy mush, Addis is a lovely place to be.

Then there's everything else about Addis, which strikes me as depressing and shoddy. The move away from Delmar may have been a quest for lower rent or more space, but Addis has forsaken a lot in the transition. In the Loop, Addis was a dark, curious little sidewalk eatery, its calm atmosphere given a little life by the colorful foot traffic right outside its door and the street-side tables that sprouted in warm weather. Out of the Loop, Addis is stranded on an unpleasant intersection that you might not want to walk to, set off from the street by a blacktop parking lot and housed in a bland structure that's got all the flair of a strip-mall liquor store.

It's not much better inside, where a helter-skelter tangle of Formica tables and straight-backed chairs awaits. There are traditional Ethiopian dining tables, too, which look like round, straw baskets turned on their heads and which come with low stools for sitting. Inexplicably, they're relegated to the perimeter of the dining room, sometimes so crammed into the corners you'd think they were being punished for doing something bad. Pieces of Ethiopian arts and crafts hang from the walls, but these are nearly outnumbered by the neon and mirror-backed alcohol-promoting decorations. (Addis has a full liquor license, and I find it neither coincidental nor heartening that the establishment's official name, as documented on the first page of the menu, is "Addis Bar & Grill.") On one visit, a cell phone in the kitchen rang three or four times, loud enough for us all to hear, to the tune of 50 Cent's "Wanksta." I found myself inordinately attracted to the ballgame being broadcast on the two TV sets; watching it meant not having to fully acknowledge my surroundings.

The service was just as glum-making. Waiters were slow and unenthused, bad at describing dishes and barely concerned with the customers. (What I can't believe is that my friends who were Addis regulars on Delmar swear that the service at the new location is faster and better than before.) In three visits, napkins and silverware were never brought to the table before the food was. Addis is likely the least-pleasant St. Louis restaurant I've eaten in.

The place is open for lunch, but it does not make its Ethiopian fare available until dinnertime. Lunch, it kills me to say, entails cheese poppers, Philly cheese steak sandwiches, turkey cheddar melts and -- God, do I even have to say it? -- toasted ravioli. Pretty much all of it is standard-issue: reheated frozen foods, untoasted burger buns, no-name ketchup, and a runny, crunchless fish-and-chips plate that nearly brought me to tears.

Ethiopian cuisine does not historically encompass dessert -- unless you consider ground raw beef, served along with the main course, a meal-ending sweet, as many Ethiopians do -- so Addis doesn't serve any. (But you can try that steak tartare, known as kitfo tire.) Tradition dictates that coffee be served after eating. The practice of coffee-drinking in Ethiopia dates back to the tenth century, and the country's beans are still considered some of the world's finest. And the Ethiopian coffee-service ritual is something to behold. But sadly, Addis only pours regulation, All-American diesel fuel.

There is undoubtedly something addictive about Ethiopian food. I've had it on my mind since I last visited Addis nine days ago, and I know a few people who exhibit steadfast loyalty to its cuisine, regardless of what they have to endure to get it. So it comes to this: I recommend that when you go to Addis, you request the check the minute your food arrives. You're not going to want to hang around.