This seems to be the season of second chances. Not long ago, La Salamandre in Danville made a comeback after the near-death of its owner -- it closed down for half a year, then reopened to critical praise as Louka. Berkeley's Addis is undergoing a less dramatic -- but equally rare -- revival. New owners have taken over the struggling restaurant, name and all, and turned it around. How often does that happen?
I haven't met a foodie who didn't love to claim bragging rights about having eaten at such-and-such restaurant before so-and-so chef moved on, got fired, or lost his mojo. Hell, I'm just as guilty as the next. This time, however, the newcomers can say they're eating better than in the good old days.
Kalki Mulushewa and her brother, Dawit, bought Addis from a friend in July. The siblings have revamped the space and taken over the kitchen. The exterior is still a work in progress, or maybe the owners have decided to treat their place like a well-kept secret: With its house o' pancakes architecture, it's easy to drive by the restaurant without noticing the changes. And the Mulushewas keep the blinds drawn to shut out Telegraph Avenue, which has the side effect of keeping passersby from seeing just how many people are inside.
The interior is no gem, but after its renovation, you may sniff a little romance in the air. The Mulushewas have planted neck-high bamboo screens between the tables, turning each into a semiprivate booth. A small thatched hut for special parties has arisen in one corner. They've also strung square paper lanterns from the ceiling where the old fluorescents used to be, and the low-watt lightbulbs cast a soft candle-like glow over the restaurant. Many of the tables are filled, half with Cal students, half with Ethiopian and Eritrean diners. In fact, Addis hasn't looked so full in years.
The menu hasn't changed much -- it covers much the same ground as other local Ethiopian restaurants, with standards like stir-fries (tibbs), spicy stews (wot), and mild ones (alicha) served communally on massive platters lined with spongy, sour injera flatbread. Even the veggie platter contains the same red and yellow lentils, potatoes, greens, and salad as every other spot in town. But the new owners have taken these standards and infused them with new passion.
Take the doro tibbs, for example, a stir-fry of chicken and onions, with a few jalapeño strips scattered throughout the dish like traffic cones to warn you of the heat ahead. At many places, doro tibbs is a safe dish, mild and familiar enough to serve newbies as you get them used to eating with their hands. But at Addis the chunks of meat and onions are coated thickly in spices, then fried until their edges are browned and crispy in spiced butter, the chile glow appearing at the end. Layer upon layer of flavor: If the meat is still too bland for you, dredge it in a pool of thick, reddish brown sauce -- it looks like KC Masterpiece Sauce but tastes more like a mole coloradito, a rich, almost smoky puree of dried chiles and spices. They modulate the spice mix along with the meat in the yebegg tibbs, or lamb stir-fry, making it possible to order both on the same platter and not experience déjà mangé.
There's something succulently pristine about the concept of beef tartare, cool and smooth as it goes down the throat, and if you're squeamish, perhaps a little clammy. But as Addis makes it, kitfo, the Ethiopian beef tartare, is anything but -- which has something to do with the fact that the cooks mix it with a palate-blasting amount of melted spiced butter. The waitress brings the kitfo to the table in a separate bowl and then stamps the mass of finely ground beef, the color of a glass of Burgundy, onto the injera next to a small pile of tangy white cheese and another of a rust-colored chile powder called mit'mit'a. To eat kitfo you pinch off a bit of the beef, a few curds of cheese, and some of the stewed collard greens from the veggie combo with a square of injera and dip a corner into the mit'mit'a (just a corner, though, because mit'mit'a is a bit of a fire bomb). The spiced butter mutes the metallic edge of the raw beef and flushes out its flavor, making it as meaty as Addis' heady yedoro wot, the classic stew of chicken and hard-boiled eggs simmered forever in a thick, spicy sauce.
Spiced butter -- has any ingredient ever sounded so romantic? Called niter kebbeh in Amharic, butter clarified with onions and spices is the magic ingredient in Ethiopian and Eritrean cooking. Used as the cooking medium, spiced butter adds a layer of flavor deep underneath all the others. Addis substitutes spiced oil for its vegetarian dishes, a tweak that meets the needs of both modern vegans and Coptic Christians celebrating sacred days with meat- and dairy-free diets.
The four dishes on the vegetarian sampler, which also makes a great complement to any meat stew, can be ordered separately. Their characters vary as much as their colors. The alicha denich, a simple stew of potatoes and carrots, melts together into a somewhat bland, turmeric-yellow mass. Ater kik, a split-pea stewed with ginger, garlic, and spiced oil, is as comforting as a down pillow. The way the cooks prepare gomen, simple stewed collard greens, brings out the greens' own piquancy. And the dashing yemeser, stewed red lentils, throbs with berebere, a paste of dried red chiles and, oh, a dozen or so spices.
If you need sustenance as much as you do romance, order the vegetarian fitfit. Tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and berebere are stewed with strips of day-old injera, which soaks up all their juices and becomes a cross between a bread pudding and a porridge. Though eating fitfit with fresh injera seems like sprinkling breadcrumbs on buttered toast, the tomatoes, peppers, and spices give it a big, complex appeal that doesn't fade after the first two bites. Plus it seem like one of those dishes you could eat once every couple days and not need anything else in between.
Though my friends and I accompanied our meals at Addis with Ethiopian beer and sugary tej (honey wine), my dinners there intoxicated me most after we left. For the rest of the evening, each time I brought my fingers near my face the scent of berebere and spiced butter wafted up from them, a hit of instant nostalgia. One that's (still) easy to indulge.
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