The Blue Nile
by M.B. Lewis
From the February, 2019 issue
The Blue Nile, on the busy corner of Fifth Ave. and Washington, may be the restaurant I've passed most and visited least in recent years. I'm not sure why, as I remember enjoying its communal dining experience when it moved to this location in the 1990s. Colorful dollops of various stews are placed clock-style on a platter in the middle of your table. Instead of silverware, you tear off pieces of spongy injera (the thin traditional Ethiopian bread) and use it to pinch up bites of vegetables and meat. (Plates and utensils are available on request.)
While brewpubs and other trendy eateries have popped up around this prominent corner, and fast food joints have come and gone, the staying power of the Blue Nile is impressive--it opened in 1989 on Braun Ct. As it rounds out its third decade, an update seems due.
For added perspective, I waited until my older son was home. He spent a couple summers in east Africa, took cooking classes there, and regularly frequented Ethiopian restaurants when working in Washington, D.C.
When our schedules finally converged on a Friday evening, I called to ask if we'd need a reservation for four. A woman with a lilting voice warmly responded, "No problem; you just come on."
We did and were promptly led to a snug modern booth (they also have traditional Ethiopian tables and stools) as the room filled steadily with groups of students and families. The dining room is invitingly spacious, with folksy artistic accents, including jewelry and textiles illuminated in a glass case at the host station.
Bypassing standard and specialty cocktails, we ordered tej, the Ethiopian honey wine. It came in a bottle with the Blue Nile's logo--our server explained it's made for them by a New York company. Trying it, my son noted it was less sweet than he was used to; the server agreed, explaining they're trying out a recipe change.
Ordering dinner is simple: you choose
between the all-you-can-eat Vegetarian Feast (which is also entirely vegan), $17.95 per person, or the $19.95 Ethiopian Feast, which adds a trio of chicken and beef dishes. Children under twelve are half price and under five free. The kids nearby seemed to be having fun wrapping little packages of food in the injera and popping them in their mouths.
After our server took away the white steaming-hot towels we used to clean our hands, he ceremoniously created a mandala-like centerpiece of rich-hued lentils, stewed dried peas, shiny braised cabbage, collards, and vegetables mixed with potatoes. Some dishes were mild, but legume stews had a real bite when spiced with berbere sauce (chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and other familiar spices along with exotic rue berries and ajwain). I liked every one of the seven vegetable stews--and their flavors went well together.
My son also thought the veggie dishes were very good, more dense and filling than he has sometimes encountered. He was a bit disappointed, however, that the injera wasn't made with one of the traditional African flours, like nutty teff or sweet sorghum. Blue Nile uses the more easily available wheat flour--not an uncommon practice in the U.S., though cities with larger Ethiopian populations have the real thing. People avoiding gluten can substitute rice for the injera.
The plot thickened with the savory meat dishes. The menu provides evocative detail on how Ethiopia's historically low-fat diet is rooted in pre-refrigeration preservation techniques. Poultry, for example, is skinned and then soaked overnight in lemon juice to break down fats before and during cooking. The meat was falling off the chicken legs as they were ladled onto the bed of injera at our table. We liked the mild doro alecha, which is cooked in "niter kibbe" (garlic-and-spiced clarified butter) but found the doro wat irresistible--it's built on the same base but is kicked into gear with berbere. Lean berbere beef, the third meat included in the all-you-eat feast, has a barbecue-like sweet tang.
Lamb is an extra-cost option, $9.95 for half a pound. As advertised, it was lean and not gamy, but it was also salty to the point of tasting brined. The men at our table loved it, the women not so much.
We asked for extra helpings of our favorite (mostly the berbere-sauced) veggies and meats, but Blue Nile didn't lose money on us. Having bread with every bite made us feel full fast--though it didn't seem to slow down the table of students who were still digging in as we moved on to spiced tea, rich Ethiopian coffee, decent creme brulee, and unfortunately soggy vegan carrot cake.
I'll happily head back with family or friends for these dinner feasts. But if you're focused on having an authentic African experience, make sure you sit away from the live entertainment station on weekends--it was on the loud side during our visit, with mostly pop standards like "Dream a Little Dream of Me."
According to Blue Nile's website, "People who eat from the same plate and break bread together will create a bond of friendship and personal loyalty." But there are times--and dining groups--in which you just want your own plate and fork. At lunch, the Blue Nile offers a lighter intro to Ethiopian eating. It's less expensive and less communal. You can still get the feasts, but they also offer individual Ethiopian entrees and a couple of American-style appetizers--cheeseburger-like sliders made with berbere beef and cheddar, and potato skins topped with that tender doro wat.
A lunchtime Afropop soundtrack went great with sun streaming through the big front window. My fresh romaine timatim house salad had a lovely balanced dressing of lemon juice, light oil, and salt. It went perfectly with the pita-like baked injera chips and with house-made hummus.
I may have been thinking a little about 3,000 years of Ethiopian "food, and wine, and music and love" (as described in a wall plaque) while I ate. Mostly I was daydreaming about sunny warm days to come.
The Blue Nile
221 E. Washington, 998-4746
Dinner: Tues.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m.,
Fri. & Sat. 4-11 p.m., Sun. 3-9 p.m. Lunch: Tues.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
All-you-can-eat dinners $17.95-$19.95. Soups, salads, and desserts $3.95- $4.95. Lunch main dishes $8.95-$16.95. Appetizers, soup, salads, and sides $3.50-$8.25.
Vegetarian and vegan options noted on menu.
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