Reasonably priced and exotic: Ethiopian fare at Porter Square
RESTAURANT REVIEW: ADDIS RED SEA
Only a few short blocks south of Porter Square is Addis Red Sea Ethiopian Restaurant. Located on a busy stretch of Mass. Ave, there is little on the outside to set this restaurant apart from any of the others around it. Step inside, however, and you are transported to a ‘whole new world.’ With a warm, exotic ambiance flanked by walls adorned with a decent assortment of what is presumably Ethiopian artwork, Red Sea is undeniably reminiscent of a scene right out of Aladdin. Its high, green textured ceilings and hanging glass light fixtures, too, add to the atmosphere. However, as I stepped into Addis Red Sea with my friend Daniela for dinner, two things that immediately caught my eye: one was the thatched awning over the bar toward the back of the establishment. The other was the lack of tables—at least the kind of tables I’m used to seeing. Unique to Ethiopian restaurants, food is served on a large communal platter atop a traditional straw-woven tabletop called a mesob. Sadly, Ethiopia gets far more publicity for poverty and famine than its rich cultural heritage. Being the only country in Africa to evade colonization (save a few short years under Italian control around World War II), many of the country’s ancient traditions have survived, including a very unique cuisine.
Upon arrival we were seated almost immediately, in spite of the fact that it was a Friday night and quite busy. The menus, which we received shortly thereafter, are fairly extensive, and cover all the major food groups. There are salads, various preparations of chicken, beef, and lamb and an eclectic mix of vegetarian dishes. When eating Ethiopian, it’s best to get a variety, because no individual portion is terribly big, and you are sharing with everyone in your party. But, being only two people, we were limited to two appetizers, two meats, and three vegetable dishes.
First came our appetizers—lentil sambusas and dibulbul tips. Sambusas are savory Ethiopian pastries with a filling, and the ones we ordered were delightful. Underneath the flaky golden-brown exterior was a soft core of spiced lentils. A plus of this dish was that the lentils’ structural integrity was left intact, as opposed to the mushiness that I’d expected to find. Unfortunately, the dibulbul tips, which the menu portrayed appetizingly as “stir-fried marinated ground beef mixed with onions, green peppers and herbs,” ended up being dense, dry mounds of unimpressive meat.
Luckily, before we had a chance to dwell on this, our main course was brought out atop a thin layer of injera, an Ethiopian staple which is essentially a porous, flexible sourdough pancake. Injera is also used in place of traditional utensils to pick up bite-sized morsels from the mesob, and the injera at Addis was the thinnest, tastiest, and best I’d ever had. Our platter in all its glory contained atakilt (mixed veggies), tikle gomen (cabbage), butecha (chickpea paste), lega tibs (lamb), and doro wot (chicken). My roll of injera disintegrated as I made my way around the plate, sampling and re-sampling all five of its components. The mixed veggies and cabbage were simple, but excellently prepared and very tasty. To my surprise, the chickpea paste didn’t at all resemble the hummus-esque substance I had expected. Instead, it was drier, with the consistency of hard-boiled egg yolk; only the flavor gave away its true identity. Finally, at the backbone of our meal were the two meat dishes. The lamb, though highly edible, was a bit tough and under-lubricated, and lacking the rosemary that it claimed to be seasoned with. On the other hand, the chicken was rich, saucy, tender, and bursting with flavor. In every bite I was able to taste suggestions of butter, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, and pepper, just as the menu had promised. Daniela and I agreed that it was easily the best thing we ordered that night.
Once we had managed to consume all of the food atop the platter, all that remained was the now-saturated injera underneath, which we scooped up to enjoy the ghostly remnants of our meal. As full as I was, it was hard to stop eating until every last morsel had been safely transferred to the warm embrace of my digestive system. Luckily for me, I had a Groupon, so the entire meal only cost me $22, plus tip and tax. Even without any discounts, however, the food is reasonably priced, and two people can eat very well for $25. So, while a few things could have been done better, my overall experience at Addis Red Sea was a positive one, and I will absolutely be returning the next time I’m craving Ethiopian.1755 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge, MA 02138
Neighborhood: Porter Square (617) 441-8727 – Gabriel Spieler