Ethiopian home cooking makes each bite an adventure

CorrespondentMay 30, 2013 

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    Ashee Ethiopian Cuisine

    904 NE Maynard Road, Cary


    Cuisine: Ethiopian

    Rating: * * * 

    Prices: $-$$

    Atmosphere: modest but inviting

    Noise level: low

    Service: reasonably friendly, slow

    Recommended: sambusa, timatim fitfit, meat and vegetarian samplers

    Open: Lunch Monday-Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday; dinner Monday-Tuesday, Thursday-Sunday. Closed Wednesday.

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; parking in lot.

    The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Peering into the storefront window, it’s tempting to label Ashee as just another strip-mall ethnic eatery furnished on a shoestring budget. OK, so maybe the fact that it’s an Ethiopian restaurant – a rarity in these parts – does rate a little higher on exotic scale than most.

Still, all the telltale signs are there: travel posters, folk art (homespun tapestries, musical instruments you don’t know the names of), linoleum tile floors, generic banquet room chairs at tables draped in plastic.

Flowers on those tables – faux, but colorful and cheery – beckon invitingly. Dining room walls painted in the rich, warm red hue of ripe coffee cherries echo the invitation.

Accept, and once you’re inside, you begin to notice the signs that Ashee’s menu is not the only thing that sets it apart. Near the back of the room, a small TV might be serving up a medley of Ethiopian music and dance. Or you might be treated to “Mister Ed,” “The Patty Duke Show” and other American black-and-white classics.

The channel you happen to get on a given night is the choice of owner Meazash Gultimet. It’s part of her effort to make her restaurant feel a little like home – which, in her case, includes both her native Ethiopia and her adopted country.

Samplers’ delight

But the food is strictly Ethiopian. Gultimet prepares it with her sister, Tayech, and frequently helps the minimal staff serving it in the dining room. At first reserved, she’ll open up to anyone who shows more than a passing interest in her food and culture.

She’ll proudly tell you that this is the food her family ate, the dishes she cooked for her now-grown children when they were too young to pronounce her name and called her Ashee. If you tell her you’re new to the cuisine, she’ll recommend the meat and vegetarian samplers.

Get both, unless you’re dining alone (it’s a lot of food). As long as no one in your party is a strict vegetarian, take her up on her suggestion to get both samplers on one platter. If you’re offered a fork, decline. Then get ready for a delightfully authentic communal dining experience.

You’ll be brought a large oval platter whose surface is almost totally eclipsed by two rounds of injera, the traditional Ethiopian spongy flatbread that serves as both food and eating utensil. Your server will proceed to dish up a rainbow assortment of stews onto the injera, distributing them across the injera like dabs of paint on an artist’s palette.

There’s the bronze of doro wot, the signature Ethiopian dish of chicken and hard-boiled egg simmered in a berbere sauce, whose complex spices call to mind both Indian curry and Texas chili. A beef variation called keyi tibs wot is a shade deeper in color, while yebeg alicha – a ginger- and pepper-spiked lamb curry – is a dappled mound of ruddy meat and golden gravy.

The spectrum broadens with vegetarian dishes to include the saffron and copper of two different lentil dishes, the deep and pale greens of collards and cabbage, and the bright confetti of a medley of green beans and carrots. The flavors are as varied as the colors, ranging from mild to spicy, earthy to exotic.

Entrees deliver, too

Most of the items in the samplers are available à la carte, along with a handful of other dishes. Timatim fitfit, a sort of Ethiopian panzanella salad of injera, tomatoes, green peppers and onions, is a winning starter. So is sambusa, which resembles an Indian samosa but is filled with spiced lentils. (Note that an order of sambusa here is just one sambusa rather than the two you typically get in an Indian restaurant.)

If the samplers whet your palate for further adventure, you’ll find it in an entree of quanta firfir: dried beef stewed in berbere sauce and tossed with bits of injera.

Further still? Kitfo ought to do the trick: finely chopped lean beef, cooked to order (rare is closest to the raw kitfo that’s customary in Ethiopia), warmed in spiced butter, and served with a dry salty Ethiopian cottage cheese called ayib.

Regardless of your order, allow plenty of time for your meal. Minimal staffing, combined with a generally unhurried attitude, rule Ashee out as a spot to grab a quick bite. That includes lunch, which can take an hour or more.

If you have plenty of time, though, and a relaxed attitude, you’re in for a culinary adventure. And if you happen to visit on a slow night, when “Ashee” has time to prepare and serve coffee Ethiopian style, you’re in for a special treat.

You’ll know you’ve hit the jackpot when she makes her way through the dining room with a small pan of hot coffee beans, still trailing smoke from roasting. When that happens, close your eyes and breathe in the aroma. You won’t even have to open them to know you’re not in your run-of-the-mill strip mall eatery. or

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