At Five Seasons, sample many flavors

February 24, 2000|By David Richardson and Cameron Barry | David Richardson and Cameron Barry,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As a restaurant, the two-story space at 322 N. Charles St. has seen many incarnations. We've had Jamaican food there and pan-Asian cuisine -- and a friend reminded us about a Cajun restaurant on the spot. A few months ago, the space became Five Seasons, an Ethiopian restaurant.

For lunch and the downtown-business crowd, Five Seasons has set up a $6.95 self-service lunch buffet. Dinner, on the other hand, features table service. It can be eaten at regular tables or, in the Ethiopian tradition, on low stools around lap-high, hollowed-out baskets in the restaurant's second floor.

For the uninitiated, Ethiopian dining is a communal affair. We should add that communal dining refers only to your own party and not to sharing with anyone else who happens to be in the restaurant. Nonetheless, it's more fun if you're with good friends.

The Five Seasons menu has many fantastic-sounding dishes -- yes'ga wet fitfit, te'beg tibs -- that are demystified by the menu and server. No matter what you order, it will be served in a large, shallow bowl lined with enjera, the flat, spongy Ethiopian bread that is used to hold and scoop your food.

Enjera is relatively tasteless and, to American diners, probably not terribly appetizing-looking (it's a bit gray). But its spongy texture absorbs flavors and keeps it from crumbling, and its low flavor level keeps it from conflicting with rich and spicy meat and vegetables.

Some explanations may be in order before you begin to read about, much less eat, Ethiopian cuisine. Here are the basics: Berberre, a paprika-colored pepper paste that is the basic marinade for many of the meat and lentil dishes, explodes in your mouth with garlic, ginger, cinnamon and cayenne, and then leaves a pleasant, lingering heat. Niter kebbeh, clarified and spiced butter, is the other flavor basic.

Wet (or wat) is beef or chicken stew. It's based on berberre pepper sauce and is a close cousin to the hotter kinds of chili and Indian vindaloos. Tibs is cubes of beef, lamb or chicken. Fitfit is any of the wets, tibs or salads (such as tomato salad) cooked or mixed with extra enjera, like a bread salad. Missir is lentils cooked in berberre. This lexicon will get you started. Apply yourselves and learn the rest of the menu with your mouths.

We tried tibs fitfit (an especially spicy and resonant medley of beef cubes, onion and tomato, mixed with enjera); yes'ga wet (hot, hot chicken stew), yedoro alcha (not-hot, curry-ish chicken stew); ye'beg tibs (lamb pieces, onions, peppers, tomatoes); missir (spicy red lentils cooked with berberre, onions and garlic); and tomato fitfit.

Your communal bowl of enjera arrives with chickpeas, lentils, rice and kek wet (spicy yellow split peas) already arranged on it. Your server then ladles the meat, poultry, lentils and salad you've ordered onto the starches. Extra enjera is served rolled up in a breadbasket. Using small pieces of the rolled-up bread, you scoop up whatever combination of foods strikes your fancy.

We liked everything on the platter, but the missir struck our fancy in particular. Be sure to order a house or tomato salad for the center of your shared meal. We tried the house -- lettuce and tomato with lemon and olive oil -- and found it a necessary refresher amid the fire of the wets and tibs.

Five Seasons has the amiable feel of a family-run enterprise. The restaurant is, however, short-handed, and we waited for food, drink and our bill. The restaurant is advertising for experienced wait-staff, and we hope it finds some. Soon.

The space, which has looked quite striking in some of its many incarnations, now has a temporary feel to it. The faux finish of a past decor is mixed with pictures and other decorations that are probably authentically Ethiopian, but there doesn't seem to be much blending. The lights, at least upstairs, are far too bright, and the classical soundtrack, while not unpleasant, doesn't suit the food or the space. On some nights, however, Five Seasons has a reggae DJ, live jazz and African/world beat music to entertain patrons.

Five Seasons has interesting food that makes the restaurant well worth trying. To make dining there a truly compelling experience, however, the owner will have to work out the kinks.

Five Seasons

322 N. Charles St.

410-625-9787

Hours: Lunch buffet Mondays to Fridays, dinner every night

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: lunch buffet $6.95; dinner entrees $8.50 to $11.95

Food: ***

Service: *1/2

Atmosphere: **

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