Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Homey dishes not super spicy, but satisfying

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The cuisine is the same, but the place has changed somewhat. I think there were more Ethiopian artifacts when it was called Yenat, but now that it has become Kokeb under new owners, there are only a few on the walls, and even fewer at the entrance where, there used to be a group of beautiful lidded baskets. It also seems smaller than I remember, with most of the space devoted to the lounge at one side, and only six tables for four lining the long narrow strip that serves as the dining area.

One thing I am sure of, though -- communication with the staff was much easier in the past. These days it is minimal and possibly the inability to describe the different dishes made it easier for the servers to steer us to the combination platter, something we pretty much had to take on faith since we didn't really know what we'd be getting, especially since I had previously consulted the menu on Kokeb's website, which led me to expect certain items on the platter that were no longer included. Among them, sadly, one of my favourites -- kitfo, the Ethiopian version of steak tartare, blazing with chili-fired mitmiti powder, and available à la carte only ($9.85).

In any case, we opted for one of the platters, because of its variety -- it offers a selection of both meat and vegetables -- and because it was such a great buy at $19 for two ($28 for three). There is also a vegetarian platter containing five different items at $8.05 per person, as well as a totally vegan lunch buffet from Monday to Friday, also $8.05.

The food is served Ethiopian style, with little piles of the various dishes topping a platter lined with injera -- the spongy, beige flatbread made of teff flour, with the slight tang of sourdough. And although a side plate is heaped with more injera, the best of them is the one that lines the platter, soaking up the juices. You can have knives and forks if you wish, but to eat in traditional style, just tear off swatches of the injera and use them to scoop up mouthfuls of the food.

The flavours are more homey than exotic, and almost nothing on the platter would taste strange to first timers. Most of the dishes are marinated and slow-cooked, some of them not unlike the kind of comfort foods your grandmother might have made. Assuming, of course, that your grandmother cooked with lots of onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes and rosemary (as my grandmother did, except for the rosemary).

Dishes called wot are supposed to be spicy-hot, but apparently what's hot and what's not is a matter of taste. We weren't asked how we wanted the spicing, and although almost everything was savoury and satisfying, nothing on the platter -- not even the wots -- raised even a bit of a buzz. Possibly the seasoning is tamped down for some perceived notion of Canadian tastes (a practice I've found in many Ethiopian restaurants). A more serious flaw was the fact that some dishes that were supposed to be hot (in temperature) were cold. And possibly the cold deep-fried potato slices really were Ethiopian, but they seemed more like perfunctory space-fillers.

Nevertheless it was an enjoyable meal. Some of the best dishes were vegetarian, most notably yemesir wot spicy stewed red lentils and alicha wot split yellow peas. Two dishes made with strips of beef -- kay wot, cooked with onions and hot red pepper, and beef tibs, cooked with onions and green peppers -- were moist, mostly tender and particularly flavourful. Doro wot -- braised chicken drumsticks, partnered with a hard-boiled egg -- were also moist and tender under a dense and delicious brick-red pepper sauce.

I don't usually stray from the combination platters in Ethiopian restaurants, but I wanted to try some dishes that were only available à la carte. The samosas, for instance, which are often skipped by those who are girding themselves for the amount of food on the platters -- a pity, since these amazingly crunchy pastries are terrific, with a ground beef filling that was nippier with spices than anything else I had here; a vegetarian lentil filling is also available ($1.33 each).

Two à la carte entrees were also delicious: doro tibs and yebeg tibs -- cubes of chicken and of lamb, respectively, which were similarly seasoned with onions, green peppers and rosemary ($9.85 each). Perhaps it was only a coincidence, but both seemed to have richer, more distinctive flavours, and were spicier than any of the dishes I'd had on the platter.

Difficulties in communication apart, the service was attentive, swift and pleasant. Beer is perfect with the food, but be sure to finish your meal with coffee. It takes 40 minutes' notice to try the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, for which the beans are freshly hand-roasted and ground. Since I'd had it in other Ethiopian restaurants on far less notice I didn't think to order it until it was too late. Not to worry, though -- the regular Ethiopian coffee (served sans ceremony) is strong, aromatic and absolutely wonderful, like the best espresso you'll ever have.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2011 D3

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