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Review: Nile Ethopian Restaurant

Sarah Baird gets a taste of Africa in the Lower Garden District

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What registers as an exotic or unusual dining experience is largely dependent on one's personal tastes and history. Some folks are happy to field dress and cook their own wild game, and others don't venture far beyond childhood favorites. It's indisputable, though, that in New Orleans an Ethiopian meal is an outside-the-box treat, and an opportunity to push one's palate in new directions. Nile Ethiopian Restaurant offers the opportunity to eat adventurously in safe environs, and explore the rich, complex flavors of Ethiopia.

  Located in an unassuming white storefront near the corner of Magazine Street and Jackson Avenue, Nile's decor is unassuming and simple, with a smattering of colorful Ethiopian artwork, teacups, and baskets serving as the only bright, eye-catching pieces. Rather than making the space seem barren, the dining room's simplicity and ample natural light create tranquility that can be difficult for a restaurant to achieve. (It's not hard to imagine the space moonlighting as a yoga studio.) A back patio shaded by thick banana leaves is being renovated and will eventually be a draw for al fresco diners.

  Nile originally arrived on the scene in July 2012, but a fire shuttered the business for several months in 2013, and the restaurant quietly reopened last August. The quality — and ample quantity — of food hasn't wavered since the fire, and neither have the spirits of the restaurant's owner Tesfaye Mengesha and staff, who are among some of the most convivial and welcoming hosts in the city.

  Don't be surprised at the lack of flatware at Nile, and be prepared to eat with your hands. The foundation of all Ethiopian dining is injera, a dense, spongy, dimpled, sourdough flatbread that pulls double-duty as a serving vessel for dishes and an edible utensil. A small bowl of rolled up injera — which looks very similar to rolled up tan wash cloths — arrives with your meal, ready to be unfurled and used to scoop up spicy stews and chunks of meat.

  Learning some basic terminology can help diners navigate the menu. Wots are rich Ethiopian stews that use slow-cooked onion as a thickening agent and can include any number of meat additions, from beef to lamb. Tibs are sauteed chunks of meat and vegetables in a preparation similar to a stir fry, but using traditional Ethiopian spices: cardamom, coriander and berbere, a chili powder that's Ethiopia's signature, heat-inducing national spice. Nile is very receptive to individual heat-level preferences, but be prepared for a noticeable back-of-the-throat tinge if you eat many of the dishes in their traditional form.

  A solid jumping off point for Ethiopian first-timers is kikil, a mild, oxblood-colored stew that has a tangy, ginger flavor and could rival some of the city's best barbecue dishes. The lamb is served in thick gravy both cubed and bone-in, with the meat's earthiness offset by ample garlic and cardamom. The fried whole fish is another gentle toe-dip into Ethiopian cuisine, with a lightly battered, flash-fried exterior and intact (eyeball included) presentation that's visually arresting. The fish is airy, flaky and unburdened by heavy spice, but the task of picking out fish bones is an unfortunate necessity.

  For those ready to take the plunge into the deep end of Ethiopian food, kitfo and gored gored are delicious dishes for the hungry and brave. The difference between the two is a fine line, but they share a bold commonality: both feature raw beef. The kitfo is expertly executed, featuring finely minced beef marinated in a blend of mitmita (a tangerine-hued spice mix featuring cloves and African birds-eye chili peppers) and niter kibbeh, a clarified butter similar in flavor and texture to ghee. A chalky, dry cottage cheese and sauteed greens mixture makes it a trifecta of decadent flavors and complementary textures when scooped up in one bite with a swath of injera. (The beef can be prepared semi-rare on request.)

  Gored gored is cubed raw beef combined with the potent red pepper paste awazem but largely unmarinated. The chunkier texture ensures that the beef has more pronounced flavor, while each spice-drenched bite packs a serious punch of chewy, satisfying heat.

  Nile offers a colorful and ample vegetarian plate featuring a rainbow of vegetable purees and chutneys, from creamy yellow split peas to spicy Ethiopian-style collard greens.

  Because of the way platters arrive with injera bread, Ethiopian dining is a social experience, and there's no better place than Nile to dine with an exploratory group. If you're looking for a novel experience, grab a couple of bottles of wine (a $5 corkage fee applies), a few friends and push your taste buds to a new level.

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