“Why is this dish called chicken chicken curry?” asked my companion, squinting at the menu.
“It’s big,” replied the waiter.
“So if it were even bigger, would it be called chicken chicken chicken curry?”
CafféAdulis, named for a lost African city, is an eccentric and oddly endearing restaurant that has just opened near Gramercy Park, in the premises that used to be Cafe Beulah. It is owned by three Eritrean brothers who since 1992 have had a place with the same strangely spelled name in New Haven, Conn. Sahle Ghebreyesus mans the front of the house in their new establishment while his brother Ficre, a self-taught chef, runs the kitchen. Ficre also designed the stylish dining room, which is almost spartan in its simplicity. The plain white walls are decorated with parchment sconces delicately hand-painted by Moroccan craftsmen with henna designs.
But that’s the only ethnic touch. The mood is more SoHo than Eritrea: tables set with white linen cloths, votive candles and white linen napkins carefully folded into glass goblets. On the sound system–guess what?–clones of the Gypsy Kings! (I’m beginning to wonder if this group doesn’t have some secret pipeline into New York’s trendy restaurants. But the music lends the place an undeniable energy–encouraged, undoubtedly, by one of the house cocktails, like an “Africando” made with kalhua, vodka and espresso.)
Much of the food at CafféAdulis comes from Eritrea, which borders the Red Sea on the northern end of Ethiopia, but Ficre says his menu is pan-African. “We draw influences from Morocco, Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean,” he said. “I use northeast Africa as my point of departure.” At first glance, the menu, which does go all over the place, from Atlas Mountains couscous to mushroom “doble paso,” looks as though it will require several days of homework to figure out–not the least because the print under the names of the dishes is tiny and hard to read by candlelight. Among the traditional Eritrean specialties are tsebhes, stews long-simmered in tomato sauce with berbere, a potent Eritrean sun-dried pepper that is used powdered, or blended into a paste and mixed with other spices and herbs. We tried the chicken tsebhe, silken, peppery chunks of meat served on injera, a pale-gold, spongy sourdough flat bread that looks like an oversized crepe (it’s made from t’aff , an East African millet ground into flour and mixed into a batter with water, fermented and cooked on a large griddle). The spices came through bold and forthright, the taste of the berbere clean and strong without knocking out your taste buds. Alitchas, also served on injera, are mild curried stews with potatoes, carrots, cabbage, squash and cauliflower. Tibsies (as explained on the menu) are “meats or seafood flash-sautéed with a wide variety of fresh vegetables,” but the kitchen seems blissfully unaware that they don’t offer any seafood cooked this way, just chicken or filet mignon–mild, medium or hot. The chicken, medium, served in a thick red sauce, was pleasantly spicy. Complementing the eclectic menu is a selection of wines from all over the world, well chosen and at moderate prices.
You can begin dinner with a straightforward salad of young fresh leaves of arugula and baby spinach with shaved garlic and olives. There is also a creamy, thick hummus with chopped tomatoes, feta cheese, garlic and scallions and a side of pita bread, or full, dried fava beans, tossed in olive oil with arugula, chopped tomatoes, scallions and feta, and dusted with berbere. Some of the other first courses, however, sound very strange. “Two tomato gig” is made with roasted whole tomatoes with smoked mozzarella, Bermuda onion and arugula, flambéed with–gasp!–Grand Marnier. It was messy and hard to eat, the ingredients melding into each other. I enjoyed it, although I wonder what the point of the Grand Marnier was. Ground curried filet mignon tasted like a spicy steak tartare and came with injera, which you wrapped around it. It was a better choice than the raw jalapeño peppers stuffed with tomato, onion, garlic and scallions–ubiquitous ingredients in this kitchen. It tasted like a dish that I was supposed to have been eating cooked.
Eritrea, being near the coast, has more contact with the outside world than the rest of Ethiopia, so the ingredients in its cooking are more varied than inland. One of the best dishes at CafféAdulis was the shrimp barka, juicy and pan-seared, served in a sauce made with a tomato-basil base, with coconut, dates and Parmesan cheese. It’s a mixture that sounds queasy, but the balance of acid, sweet and spicy worked. It was surprisingly subtle considering the ingredients. The chicken chicken curry also made me wonder if the chef had tossed in whatever was on hand, but the polygamous union of coconut, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbage, zucchini and walnuts in the sauce somehow pulled together. The grilled lamb chops were thick and juicy, as straightforward as chops in a steak house, although they came with lentils and spinach instead of fries.
One night, when there were three of us at the table, all the food arrived family-style on a large enameled tin platter with a plate of rolled-up injera served on the side. Traditionally, you are supposed to eat with your right hand, rolling your food in pieces of the bread, which act as a spoon. It’s certainly easier than trying to eat couscous with your fingers, and the bread cuts the fieriness of the berbere.
Desserts are firmly in the Western mode. They include a lackluster Key lime cheesecake, a lovely tiramisù dotted with powdered chocolate and a dense, rich, dark chocolate truffle cake with raspberry sauce.
There’s a compelling sweetness about the people and the place. The food is straightforward and good, the service equally unpretentious. Having enjoyed the chicken chicken, next time I’ll go for the gored gored (a big curry made with filet mignon).
39 East 19th Street
Wine list: Short, international, fairly priced
Noise level: Fine
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses $15 to $24
Dinner: Monday to Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 P.M., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 P.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor