A New Shade of Blue

Try Blue Nile's Ethiopian cuisine for a taste -- and experience -- of the exotic.

Last year Ethiopian-born Jember Ameha opened Blue Nile, a small restaurant featuring the spicy stews and other fare of his native land. The atmosphere is clean and cheerful, with lavender walls, retro-style chairs and booths, travel posters and memorabilia from his homeland, and black-and-white linoleum floors. It's family operated: Ameha waits on customers while other family members do the cooking. He is very friendly and personable, quite accustomed to describing the food to the uninitiated, and helpful with ordering.

For those used to more conventional dining, Ethiopian restaurants are quirky, both because of the menu structure and the fact that you eat with your fingers. There is no appetizer-entrée-dessert sequence. Instead, except for a starter of homemade bread and spicy sauce, the food comes

all at the same time, with ladlefuls of the various stews served on a pizza pan atop spongy bread called injera. You tear off pieces of the bread and use them to scoop up bites of the various stewed dishes. (At Blue Nile, forks are brought to the table for those who want them.) Many dishes feature berbere, a complex blend of chili powder and herbs that can range from spicy to blistering.

The menu is a little confusing because Ethiopian names are used, but the dishes are each carefully described. In general, there are three types of meat dishes: Those with fiery berbere sauce, those with a less spicy tomato and onion sauce, and ground meat tossed in hot chili peppers. Most are spicy to some degree, and it's often likened to Indian curry, an apt comparison in terms of the intricate flavor. All of it is served with injera, huge spongy sourdough pancakes made from teff, a grain grown in Ethiopia.

It's definitely adventurous eating, with no steak or chicken-fingers fallback on the menu. If you don't want it hot and spicy, it's important to be very clear about your wishes, which the restaurant will gladly accommodate.

The starter served at Blue Nile, bread with berbere dipping sauce, is as much for the appetite as it is an important test of what you should order. If you like the heat of this sauce, then you will enjoy the dishes with berbere.

Our first trip we tried the doro alicha, which was a tender chicken leg and whole hard-boiled egg in a lively onions-and-green-pepper-based sauce. The lamb tibs consisted of small chunks of meat in a sauce that was spicy hot with the zing of berbere yet deeply flavorful with slow-sautéed onions and other seasonings. With it, we had the colorful combination platter of five vegetables, four of them quite mild. The collards were the best of the bunch, the characteristic bitterness of the greens tamed in a sauté with onion and green pepper. The cabbage was sweet and tender, and the stewed carrots, potatoes, and other vegetables over rice (yatakitt) were similarly mellow. The yellow split peas were garlic-infused but still mild, in contrast to the fiery red lentils with berbere.

Our second visit we tried one of the sampler platters for one, which included three meats and three vegetables. It would have been ample for two people. The doro fitfit was actually the same dish we had before, but served with pieces of sauce-soaked injera that also reduced the heat. The key tibs consisted of succulent bite-sized bits of beef in a complex, less spicy sauce with bits of onion. The vegetables were three we'd had before.

Two of the most intriguing dishes were made from sirloin tips, well-trimmed and chopped. As part of the combination platter, we got kitfo, the chopped beef marinated in spicy chili pepper. It managed to be mellow with butter and scathingly hot at the same time. We also ordered the minchetabesh, which was chopped beef sautéed in an intriguing combination of onion, white pepper, ginger, and cardamom, then berbere sauce. It was fiery but complex in flavor, without any one dominant seasoning.

With all of this food, the injera serves not only as an eating apparatus. It helps tame the spiciness of the stews and fills you up pretty quickly.

The restaurant, in addition to the current Ethiopian fare, is adding some Indian dishes as well, so that diners will have some more choices.

As for other useful information, beer is available, but it's BYOB for wine (no corkage fee) and other spirits. At lunch you can order from the menu or have the $7.99 buffet, with eight dishes to choose from. On Friday nights a belly dancer performs. The restaurant is open Sundays and Mondays, but closed all day Tuesday.

In short, Blue Nile is a refreshing change from the predictable, and undeniably an adventure in eating. Lovers of spicy food will be intrigued by the complex flavor of this food, while those who aren't will still find something interesting to eat. The owners are friendly, and well-versed in helping patrons sort through the menu options And it's a bargain as well, with entrées around $10 and combination platters a few dollars more per person. True, there could be a few mainstream items on the menu to accommodate anyone at the table who's not as adventurous.

Taken on its own terms — and that's really the best approach for this restaurant — Blue Nile is both pleasant and exotic, a worthwhile excursion for those interested in something new.

Blue Nile 835 W. Poplar, Collierville

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