Blue Nile reviewed
by Bix Engels
I think sometimes that what makes America the shining city on a hill is the glow of all the restaurant signs of brave immigrants who've come here to redefine their future-and ours. Twenty years ago, the Blue Nile was Ann Arbor's first portal to Ethiopia, and it is still the only Ethiopian restaurant in the city. Though it feels less exotic in today's more cosmopolitan field, when we dropped by after several years' absence, we were in many ways delighted by the experience, if sometimes underwhelmed by the fare.
Bathed in shades of ochre, deep red, and dark green, and decorated with geometric designs and folkloric paintings, the spacious room is welcoming and comfortable. Seating is in deep booths or at a mesob, a colorful woven basket of a table. Mesobs are built to hold only the communal tray from which everyone eats; small side tables handle drinks. Though I'm generally on the side of authenticity and adventure, I admit to liking the idea of the mesob more than the reality. This is such a communal meal-particularly at dinner-that it encourages hanging around and yakking afterwards, and for that, booths serve as a much better lounging venue.
The evening menu is simple and straightforward. It consists of four meat and seven vegetarian dishes, a salad, and a few desserts. Dinners are served communally and priced by the person. We chose the Ethiopian feast-meat plus vegetables-but a slightly less expensive vegan feast is also an option.
Before dinner the waiter brought a tray of steaming hot washcloths for our hands. Then he delivered a tray of rolled injera bread-soft, sourdough griddlecakes that are torn into strips and used in place of cutlery to pick up bites of food. This was followed by an injera-lined platter on which the eleven dishes were displayed in small mounds of various earthy shades and contrasting textures, arranged as carefully as a still life.
In general, the food was not as spicy as I've had in
other Ethiopian restaurants. And the hotter dishes, though not particularly fiery, packed a much more desirable punch. The two meat-based wat stews, a chicken doro wat and a beef zilzil wat, were intensely flavorful. The vegetarian lentils and split peas tended to blandness and a dull similarity in taste and texture, but other vegetable preparations on the platter added contrast and interest, particularly the superb chopped collards with garlic and chiles, and the well-seasoned sautéed cabbage. Always there was that interplay between the spongy, faintly tangy injera and the stews and sauces.
After dinner, we lounged as the waiter kept refilling cup after cup of Ethiopian spice tea. The four of us split a piece of Italian cream torte covered thinly with almonds and dusted with powdered sugar, rounding out an interesting evening.
After a few years when it was only open for dinner, the Blue Nile began offering lunch again in February, this time with table service and a menu that ventures into more fusionist territory.
We started well with a delicious vegetable soup. Among the main courses, we liked the "yedoro tibs cabernet," grilled beef sliced and served in a wine reduction. The stuffed chicken saltimbocca started out dry and bland, though it was lifted by an interesting sauce of herbs and roasted peppers, which the server remembered to bring about halfway through the meal. This time, the beef in the zilzil wat was tough, although I managed to keep myself pretty happy with a side of collards and particularly fresh injera.
At lunch, in an almost empty dining room, service was hit or miss. Our waiter disappeared for long stretches and needed to be reminded of things like water requests and cream for coffee. At dinner, on the other hand, the service was one of the best parts of the evening. The waiter provided constant but unobtrusive care, and the gracious owner, Habti Dadi, personally brought the tray of entrees to our table and explained each of the dishes, as if he were entertaining guests at home. He's the perfect host.
221 E. Washington 998-4746
Dinner Tues.-Thurs. 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 4 p.m.-10:30 p.m., Sun. 3-9 p.m. Lunch Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Mon.
Dinner: $16.90-$18.90 per person. Lunch: Appetizers $3.50-$4.25, entrees $6.25-$10.95. Desserts $4-$6.
X Fully accessible to disabled.
[Originally published in May, 2009.]