Restaurant rules are different at Ethiopian Sunlight

Be patient, and adjust your expectations

July 14, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On the bright side, one of the great things about the Baltimore restaurant scene is that quirky, funky, play-by-their-own rules restaurants like Sunlight still exist.

To enjoy a meal at this little Ethiopian restaurant in Fells Point, it's necessary to suspend many of the usual expectations one might have at a restaurant -- that you'll get what you order, that it will arrive in less than an hour, and that you'll be able to cool the fire in your mouth with regularly refilled water glasses.

Ethiopian food doesn't adhere to the typical restaurant rules, anyway. It generally arrives as little dollops of stews and salads on a large circle of spongy, tangy bread called injera. Plates and utensils are not used; patrons scoop up the food with the bread and eat it all.

Sunlight, which opened in January, does a great job with the many vegetarian items that are popular in Ethiopian cooking. But the chunks of lamb in the awaze tibs and the beef in both the key wot and alicha wot were too chewy to be appealing. (Wot refers to a sauce, tibs means cooked meat, but wots and tibs are both stew-like concoctions.)

Yet some of the meat dishes were worth ordering. A chicken dish, doro wot, featuring a drumstick swimming in spicy sauce, was fall-off-the-bone tender. Key michet-abish, a spicy chili of ground beef, was better than the dishes with chunks of meat, maybe just because it was easier to chew.

You can place an order to go, but we enjoyed sitting in the yellow restaurant, sipping Ethiopian beer and looking at the colorful artwork on the walls, even if the place was a little shabby and the tables were covered with clear plastic cloths.

We were enjoying ourselves, that is, until we realized that we were being neglected. We arrived at 6:30 p.m. and didn't notice until almost 7 p.m. that nobody had come by to greet us or take our order. And once we did order, our food didn't arrive for almost an hour after that.

The restaurant was nearly empty, so we weren't being ignored because our waitress was busy with other tables. And even if the kitchen was behind, our drinks should have been served quickly and refilled regularly. (Especially our water glasses once the food came.)

After the main course arrived, we asked about our appetizers -- we had ordered salad, plus meat and lentil sambusas. Oops, our waitress had forgotten all about them. After our main course was cleared, she brought the lentil sambusas, but not the salad or meat sambusas.

No desserts are offered at Sunlight.

All this sounds pretty bad, yet much of the food at Sunlight was lovely, with all the subtle spicing and soft textures that make Ethiopian food appealing. And the tangy bread, made on the premises, was a delicious, soothing counterpoint to the heat of the spicier offerings.

Those sambusas, when they finally arrived, were filled with tender lentils, had crunchy, crackly exteriors and were served so hot that steam poured out when they were split open.

Some of the little salads and stews arranged on the injera were delicious, especially the shiro wot, a chunky stew of peas and onions, a cool Ethiopian potato salad, tender collard greens and a lentil stew called misir wot.

My advice to Sunlight patrons is to stick to the vegetarian fare and a few other dishes, don't be in a hurry, and enjoy the relaxed vibe and unusual food in one of the city's few Ethiopian restaurants. An interesting and inexpensive meal will be your reward.

Sunlight Restaurant

Where: 1713 Eastern Ave., Fells Point

Call: 410-342-5694

Hours: Open for dinner Monday through Saturday

Prices: Appetizers $1.50-$4, entrees $7-$17.50

Credit cards: All major cards

Food: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Service: * (1 star)

Atmosphere: ** (2 stars)

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