Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Familiar name, but menu from another world

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Harman's? my friends (who aren't up on these things) ask. You mean the drugstore? And of course I didn't mean the drugstore with that lunch counter of blessed memory. It vanished years ago, along with its waitresses -- those paragons of efficiency who took orders without ever taking notes and never getting any of them wrong.

So what's a nice Ethiopian restaurant doing with a name like Harman's? Well, there is a connection, in the person of the charming, hospitable owner who had fond memories of the many years she spent cooking at Harman's, and decided to stay with the name. But although the Canadian menu lists several sandwiches (very big, and very good, just like at the old Harman's) the fabled double decker of back bacon, asparagus and cheese isn't among them (pity!). There is also a short Chinese menu, used at lunch only, and prepared by a Vietnamese cook -- among the items are nice, crunchy spring rolls (six for $5.95).

On the surface little has changed since the Vietnamese Trieu Chau lived here. It's still an unpretentious but pretty little place, the walls still a dusty lilac adorned by Asian artifacts, the space still divided into more intimate areas by curtains of beads with Asian motifs. Only the earth tones on the tablecloths and the haunting beat of the music on the soundtrack evoke Ethiopia. And, of course, the spicy aromas.

The menu is pretty much like most other Ethiopian menus in the city, albeit a little shorter than some. There are no appetizers, not even the usual sambusas; the focus is entirely on main courses, which are unbeatably priced at $9.50 for any of the vegetarian entrees, and $10 for any of the meats.

To try as many dishes as possible opt for the variety on the combination dinners and share them with your companions. But even single diners can try several items by ordering one of the sampler platters, composed of four vegetables, or three meats or a four-item mixture of both. However you order it will be hard to rack up much of a tab, and you may still get tomorrow's lunch out of the leftovers.

The food is served in Ethiopian fashion, on hubcap-size platters lined with injera, a spongy, sourdough crepe made of teff -- an ancient cereal grain -- and dotted by little mounds of meat and/or vegetables, depending on what is ordered. You eat in Ethiopian fashion too, using the injera as a utensil by tearing off swatches and using them to scoop up dollops of the food (you'll need plenty of extra napkins). More rolls of injera are served in a little basket on the side, but the tastiest parts are those on the platter, which are soaked with the juices of the foods above. Eating here is a hands-on experience, although forks will be provided for those too squeamish to eat with their fingers.

The degree of heat will depend on your own choice. In fact, very little of what I tried was incendiary, and only kitfo raised more than a bead or two of sweat. It's a kind of steak tartare (cooked slightly rare, if preferred) of freshly diced beef mixed with butter and jalapeno peppers, and fired with the chili-based awaze sauce -- for intrepid tongues only, although a side of house-made cottage cheese helps tame the flame. Hot, yes, but nothing like the blazing kitfo of a long-gone restaurant that had me wrapping pieces of injera around my tongue in an effort to ease the pain.

Most of the other meats are slow-cooked stews in thick, dark sauces, intricately spiced with various combinations of garlic, ginger, chili peppers and such spices as, among others, cardamom, coriander, cumin, cloves and allspice. The wats are the hottest of the lot, but our doro wat was actually quite temperate and delicious -- chicken drumsticks simmered in butter with onions and berbere spice paste, and topped by a hard boiled egg.

The tibs was milder still, a kind of stir-fry of lamb, in our case (beef is an alternative) with onions, tomatoes and green peppers. The menu calls it mutton, which is pretty much extinct in these parts. It is actually lamb, and although occasionally chewy, very tasty.

There are some fine choices for vegetarians. The rather bland tikil gomen mixture of cabbage, carrots and potatoes could have come from my grandmother's kitchen, but nothing else. Certainly not the wonderful misir split red lentils in a berbere sauce of red chili peppers and garlic, or the shiro of pureed mixed legumes with hints of ginger and garlic, or the kik alicha of yellow split peas with turmeric and green peppers. And I'm reasonably certain my grandmother never cooked collard greens, with or without onions, ginger and jalapenos, although she probably would have liked the nicely dressed green salad, which comes with everything.

Canadian breakfasts -- eggs, pancakes, and such-- are listed in one part of the menu. But there are also several other breakfasts among the Ethiopian specialties, notably the flavourful foule (pronounced fool) of fava beans mashed with tomatoes and onions.

There are no Ethiopian desserts, but the cardamom spiced tea smelled heavenly and tasted lovely, and the Ethiopian coffee is nothing short of superb. The beans are roasted to order and then brewed into something miraculously smooth, rich and velvety. A must, if you love coffee.

Our service was gracious and attentive, but since there were few others present, I can't predict how it might be with a full house.

To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 12, 2010 D3

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