It wasn’t until the third visit that I developed an affection for Red Sea 47, a new Ethiopian restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen. My previous meals there had been lackluster—the food had had a reheated quality (Ethiopian is one of the world’s most microwavable cuisines), and most of the fare had been mind-numbingly bland.
There were exceptions. Generally regarded as the cuisine’s signature, doro wat ($13.95) fell just short of spectacular: two small pieces of chicken—skin, bones, and all—tussling with a boiled egg in thick red sludge. It’s the Ethiopian answer to mother and child reunion, the Cantonese dish celebrated by the Paul Simon song. Even more important, the spice level of the doro wat had been incendiary, in a cuisine that’s famed for its heat. How you attack it is up to you, but I recommend smashing the egg with your fist, then stripping the chicken off the bones so that everyone may share it. As in many Third World cuisines, all the action is in the sludge.
Other items were disappointing. The little triangular turnovers called sambosas (two to an order, $3.50) tasted like they’d been pulled from the freezer of an Indian grocery down the block, with fillings so low on flavor we couldn’t tell the lentil version from the one filled with plain ground beef. The grilled tilapia had been nicely cooked, but it came sided only with lemon wedges, and didn’t seem even slightly Ethiopian. The lamb wat, which should have been fiery, could have been used as a salve on a bad sunburn.
Newly opened, Red Sea 47 joins a dozen other Ethiopian restaurants in town. Depressingly, they all share nearly identical menus, which always seems like some sort of conspiracy among Ethiopian restaurateurs. The premises are modern, so you won’t find the teetering basket tables called messobs. But you will see the usual collection of ethnographic gewgaws plastered on the walls, including a Coptic Christian mural that telegraphs the place’s religious proclivities.
The food is served in the traditional manner, which is one of the best reasons I can think of for eating Ethiopian: Portions of each dish are deposited on a vast tray lined with dun-colored injera, the rubbery fermented flatbread that’s an indispensable part of every Ethiopian meal. It’s made from teff, a millet-like grain. With your right hand, tear off pieces and use them to ferry bites to your mouth. Finish by eating the juice-soaked bread underneath, which is the best part of the meal (sadly, many diners ignore it). This style of eating creates a communality and conviviality that can make friends out of complete strangers.
As I said, on my third visit the restaurant finally took off, as if it had been a delayed aircraft waiting impatiently on the tarmac. One dish that we’d overlooked on previous occasions was menchet abesh ($12.95)—a hillock of sautéed ground beef deglazed with red wine and thickened with chickpea flour. Not only was it spicy enough, it had a winning gingery zing. We also liked, though not quite as much, derek tibs, which sounds like the name of a hard-charging NFL quarterback. In this dish, tidbits of steak are cooked in rendered fat with chopped onions, until the meat is dense and fibrous and the onions semi-caramelized. It’s something like Haitian cabrit (fried goat), which suggests the pan-African roots of some Ethiopian cooking.
But one of the cuisine’s most oddball dishes proved consistently disappointing at Red Sea 47. Kitfo ($14.95) is raw ground beef that, like beef tartare, ought to be buttered and highly spiced. Though coated with a thick red substance, the mound was totally flavorless, and certainly not worth the risk inherent in eating raw meat. (Kitfo is also available in cooked form, but why bother?) The best part of the dish was the little pile of fresh homemade cheese that came alongside, known as ayib. At Ethiopian restaurants in Washington, D.C., I’ve had kitfo mixed with clarified butter and spices, which is beyond delicious.
Our refuge during the two lackluster earlier visits lay in the wonderful vegetarian combination ($11.95), in which six dishes are arranged on their own separate bed of injera. This entrée includes little pools of lentil-based sauces in a variety of colors, displaying the entire palette of Ethiopian flavors, ranging from spicy to agreeably mild. There are collards, too, a perfunctory salad, and a stew of sweet potatoes and cabbage. I can’t think of a better advertisement for vegetarianism.