This mini-strip mall has been a melting pot of cuisines since its beginning, most often Indian, Vietnamese and Ethiopian, at times changing tenants with such head-spinning regularity some were never reviewed. This particular space has been Ethiopian at least twice that I can remember, and today, as the Blue Nile, it is Ethiopian again.
It's a pleasant, softly lit place, done in muted shades of red, from pale coral to deep burgundy, its two walls of large windows shaded by particularly attractive vertical blinds in soft mauve with silvery streaks. It also has a small hookah lounge set slightly apart from the dining area, but since it wasn't in use when I was there I can't report on what effects a hookah might have on the rest of the room (I was told it's never a problem, and that a variety of herbs and fruit flavours are used in the process). In any case, the first aroma that greeted us upon entering was incense, followed by the aroma of savoury, spice-rich cooking.
The menu seems more extensive than usual, with a long list of la carte dishes, and a few combos. Most meat entrees cost from $10 to $14, vegetarian dishes from $8 to $10, two meat-plus-veggie combos from $22 to $27, and an all-veggie combo for $10. All come on platters lined with injera -- a spongy sourdough flatbread made of teff flour, with more rolls of injera on the side (which would taste better if served warm instead of cold). The traditional manner of eating is to tear off pieces of the injera and use them to scoop up the food, but the finger-finicky needn't fret -- forks are provided on request.
The seasonings are complex with various mixtures of garlic and ginger, and such spices as coriander, cumin, turmeric and, of course, one kind of chili or another (often bird's eye chili, said to be the world's hottest). Some of the dishes are among the best of their kind that I have found. Nor do they dumb down the spices, a few of which left my lips tingling long after I had finished eating (the injera helps dowse the flames).
Very little blazes on the sampler platters, which still offer flavour, variety and value, and are ideal for sharing. The $27 Blue Nile combo (which would serve two generously) comprises chicken stew with a hard boiled egg, cubes of sautéed chicken and beef (both tasty if a tad dry) and a slightly spicy beef stew, as well as most of the vegetables that appear on the all-vegetable combo. None of the veggies on that combo were highly spiced, but all were delicious -- a colourful kaleidoscope of kale, yellow and red lentils, crushed chickpeas, a mixture of potatoes, cabbage and carrots, sweet cubes of beets and a palate-cleansing salad of lettuce and tomatoes.
Nevertheless, it's worth exploring the la carte listings for some of the best items the kitchen has to offer. The superb kitfo alone is worth a visit -- a mound of freshly minced, very lean, raw beef, seasoned with herbed clarified butter and fired with the chili-stoked mitmita powder. There are several versions -- ours came with bits of housemade cheese and finely shredded kale (collard greens according to the menu, but kale, according to our server). The portion was so huge, half of it provided lunch the next day, part of which we ate raw, part in equally delicious sautéed patties. There are a few other raw beef dishes, and the intrepid can opt for the dulet of chopped beef, liver and tripe -- raw or cooked.
But you don't have to eat raw or eat fire to eat well. Chacha was also outstanding -- sizzling, addictive cubes of beef in relatively mild seasoning, with a slight undertone of sweetness. Or the wonderful bozena shiro of ground-roasted chickpeas mixed with flavourful little cubes of beef. Or yebeg alicha, stewed cubes of lamb (some on the bone) -- slightly, but not impossibly chewy, also one of the milder dishes.
Most la carte portions were also generous enough for two, although the doro wot special poses a problem when sharing. This incendiary stew is based on a thick chili-red sauce of long-simmered onions, but yielded only a single chicken leg and a single hard boiled egg -- an odd, but apparently traditional practice, since that's how it's often served elsewhere. At least, our la carte doro wot special contained a chicken leg (a very small one), but the only chicken in the doro wat on the $27 combo was the even harder-to-share backbone, with very little meat on it.
There are only a few appetizers, among them sambusas ($2 each) -- crisp fried pastry triangles stuffed, in our case, with green chili-spiked minced meat (a vegetarian version is also available). Foul (pronounced fool) is listed under breakfasts but available all day, a comforting, homey dish of fava beans cooked with onions and tomatoes.
We didn't get to the coffee ceremony (I got the impression they weren't quite prepared for it), but we were steered to a wonderful tea that was aromatic with spices, cinnamon predominating. Beer is said to be the ideal beverage with this food, and there are 13 choices, as well as a lengthy list of liquors. Ordering is facilitated by the menu's colour photographs and brief descriptions of the dishes, but our friendly and attentive server was even more helpful, and wonderfully patient about guiding us through our choices.
Open daily from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday, to 1 a.m. Friday to Sunday.
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.
Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.