Azeb's enjera a winner ... hands down

October 02, 1997|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When you eat Ethiopian, you eat an awful lot of enjera, the thin, spongy bread used to wrap up morsels of spicy stews. At Azeb's, a new Ethiopian restaurant on Charles Street, the enjera is moist and delicate-tasting, quite unlike doughy, sour versions I've had in the past.

Owner Azeb Teklay, a former Indianapolis engineer who opened the restaurant in July, said her enjera is so tasty because it's made from teff, a nutritious seed that grows in Ethiopia. She serves a basket full of enjera strips, rolled up into tight bundles, with each dinner.

Enjera also lines the communal dinner tray -- almost like a soft pizza crust -- where different stews, salads and vegetables are arranged in a circle. Rip off a piece of bread and wrap up a bite of food; no forks allowed. It's a fun way to eat, if your friends are game -- and if they wash their hands.

To make the experience even more authentic, we decided to eat in the upstairs loft, next to a deep-blue mural of sky. Here, chairs and cushioned stools are arranged around coiled baskets that serve as tables. At our feet were animal-skin rugs. If you're the kind of eater who inevitably drops something in your lap, choose a table downstairs.

There were no appetizers to speak of, so we moved directly to our dinner order. We decided on Azeb's specialty chicken, which featured chunks of breast meat cooked in awaze, a thin sauce with sauteed onions, peppers and wine. It was our favorite dish -- light-tasting and not too spicy-hot.

Beef in barbarre sauce was simmered to the point of disintegration, the shreds of meat coated in a thick, dark, hot sauce. According to Teklay, the longer barbarre is cooked, the more mild the spices become. She said it would be overpowering if served too soon. There was so much going on in this complex dish, we could hardly identify the key players -- cardamom, clove, paprika, turmeric, perhaps.

Our last choice was a vegetarian sampler, which allowed us to pick three entrees. We decided on gomen, a dish of spicy chopped collards, onions and garlic; missir, a seasoned porridge of red lentils, and tikel gomen, a bland mix of cabbage, potato, carrots and onion.

We also tried a red-ripe tomato salad with bits of fiery jalapeno peppers. That, too, we tried to wrap in pieces of enjera, but it was a bit slippery. Eating with your hands is an acquired skill, we learned.

Small portions of split-pea puree, and limp house salad, with iceberg lettuce and tomatoes in vinaigrette, also came with our dinners.

The only dessert offered was a chocolate layer cake that wasn't made in-house. Straight from the refrigerator, it tasted dry, but the frosting was thick and had deep chocolate flavor.

Like some other things we asked for, the cake was a little slow to arrive. Our waitress was serene and helpful, if not especially fast. But with a hands-on meal like this, lingering is part of the experience.

Azeb's Ethiopian Restaurant

Address: 322 N. Charles St.

410-625-9787

Hours: Open daily for dinner, Monday through Saturday for lunch

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Entrees, $5.95-$10.95; samplers for two, $16.95-$24.95

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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