Two days later my fingers still smelled. The culprit was tsebhe beghie ($18), deliciously bathing lamb cubes in the Ethiopian spice mixture berberé (“bare-bare-ay”). But Caffé Adulis isn’t Ethiopian, it’s Eritrean—referring to the coastal region that broke away in 1991 after 30 years of civil war. This Flatiron newcomer is the first to bistro-ize the cuisine, offering a menu mixing traditional dishes with invented ones. Murky color photos garnish a handsome barroom with wooden booths as hard as church pews; white-napped tables dot the comfortable rear dining room.
You’re still allowed to eat with your fingers off a common ceramic tray, though big spoons and satellite plates are provided for the fastidious. Where Ethiopians line the tray with several layers of injera, the sourdough flatbread they use to pick up their food, there’s a perfunctory piece or two underneath, and a meager pile on the side, dry and curled at the edges. I guess Adulis figures well-heeled patrons will ignore it, like white rice in a Chinese restaurant. But while the tsebhe was suitably pungent, other dishes were wretched on a pair of visits. Alitcha derho had virtually no flavor at all. You might be happy with this casserole of zucchini, green beans, tomatoes, and chicken if you found it in the supermarket freezer, but here it was an $18 disappointment. Gored gored curry ($19), a similar vegetable mélange chunked with rubbery filet mignon, was so dull it remained uneaten. Ironically, mambo gold ($18), an improvised dish of spaghetti dressed with a weird mixture of tomato sauce and pesto, almost worked.
While Adulis may be the first Eritrean spot to hire a publicist, for over a decade a more modest establishment has thrived in the shadow of Columbia University. Massawa has lately come out of the closet by adding “Eritrean” to the “Ethiopian” on its awning. When I asked the difference between the two, our waitress replied with a sudden broad smile, “Absolutely nothing at all.” Nevertheless, look for the handful of dishes you won’t find in Ethiopian restaurants. Earthy fava-bean full (“fool”) is a legacy of 19th-century Egyptian occupation, its surface pocked with little caches of yogurt, berberé, onions, and jalapeños. Mix well before eating. Instead of injera, the bowl comes with a baguette, reflecting 60 years of Italian rule. Another giveaway is the espresso machine on the bar, although most Eritreans prefer to take their brew in an hour-long ritual that includes popcorn.
Oddities aside, Massawa mounts an Ethiopian spread of impressive diversity, resplendent on a lush carpet of injera. The cubes of beef tenderloin in this gored gored are sautéed in a fiery spice paste and served rare; alitcha beghie is a chunky stew sharpened with plenty of ginger and garlic, though the lamb is sometimes tough. Order a couple of chicken or meat main courses ($6 to $10), and be further regaled with heaps of colorful lentil stew, mixed-vegetable alitcha, cabbage, collards, and a mild green-chile puree. But best of all is kitfo, the classic Ethiopian mass of raw, freshly ground beefsteak. Laced with clarified butter and cardamom, it’s tastier than steak tartare—and a dish the bistro crowd could really get into.