Blue Nile Ethiopian Cafe
Walking into an Apple store is like a lecture in effective brand marketing. Everywhere you look, from the table arrangements, to the walls, to the product kiosks and the employees themselves screams Apple; this is life with an i. It had only been the second time I had been in an Apple store but the experience was still mesmerizing, particularly for a rabid computer enthusiast like me. Yet I wasn’t there to browse the new iMacs or play with the iPhone. My brother had broken his fourth gen iPod awhile ago and wanted to see if the Genius Desk (yes the service support call themselves that) had any suggestions before he gave it up as a lost cause.
Conveniently enough, this entailed a trip to Chandler Fashion Square Mall which is only blocks away from my last unexplored Ethiopian restaurant in the valley, Tina’s Ethiopian Café. Tina doesn’t post her hours online and from what others have written, they have a tendency to change from day to day so I gave her a call to see when she would be open on Saturday. Unfortunately she had cut her dinner hours short, opening at 6 and taking her last seating at 9 PM which didn’t agree with our growling stomachs or my dad who had decided to tag along. Instead I suggest my perennial favorite, Blue Nile, and off we went down Rural.
I hadn’t been to Blue Nile in a couple months and in the interim the restaurant has undergone some significant changes. Walking up we saw a freestanding sign outside advertising their new breakfast options including omelets and a vegan tofu scramble, all ranging in price from 4.95-7.95. While certainly a break from the Ethiopian standards, the photographed dishes looked good and I was pleased to see the vegan options. The dining room had undergone some changes as well, a fresh coat of paint as well as some new native art adorned the walls. It gave the restaurant a cozier feel, less a college hangout and more the type of place I would feel comfortable taking my parents (which I was doing…). Instead of the laminated one sided menus of old, the waitress appeared with three large double sided pieces of paper with a completely new and expanded menu. In the next couple days I will try and photograph the menu for everyone and post it online. The new menu is organized between “East of Red Sea” and “West of Red Sea” dishes with the nine vegetarian entrees labeled “Vegan Entrees.” The breakdown is as follows: Appetizers, West of Red Sea Salads, East of Red Sea Salads, Vegan Entrees, Chicken and Beef, Ethio Combos, West of Red Sea Specials, East of Red Sea Specials, Side Dishes, and Beverages. The East of Red Sea specials includes several non Ethiopian dishes like falafel made with fava beans and a grilled chicken/vegetable plate served on rice with side hummus and pita. We decided to stick with the standard Ethiopian menu and ordered the Vegan combo for three (8.50 per person), selecting Tikil Gomen (stewed cabbage with potatoes), Misir Watt (red lentils in berbere), Atkilt Watt (string beans, carrots, and potatoes in a tomato based sauce), Gomen Watt (collard greens in a ginger sauce), and Begerdan (eggplants with bell peppers and onion stewed in a tomato based sauce). We also added two salads, Misir Azifa (green lentils served cold in a tangy Dijon dressing), a personal favorite of mine, and a tomato salad (3.50 each). My brother chose the Guava juice, a slightly sweet, tangy, and thoroughly refreshing fruit drink, and my father went for the house tea, freshly brewed with notes of clove and nutmeg (2.00 each).
As we sat and waited for our food to arrive the restaurant slowly filled with customers. Business seems to be going well as two large parties followed shortly after us and a couple smaller groups trickled in as we ate. After about 15 minutes, our food arrived on a large platter along with accompanying injera. The first thing I noticed was that the edges of some of the injera were crispy, as if they had been pulled off the stove just before the point of being overcooked. The injera was very light in color and unfortunately did not have the sour taste I associate with true injera made with Teff flour, which they advertise prominently on the tables. I am not sure if this is because they aren’t fermenting it as long or if they’re using less Teff in their mixture but I would have appreciated the sour note. The food however was fantastic, each dish the best example I had ever tasted. The azifa was cool and tangy with an excellent Dijon dressing that balanced well with the lightly cooked lentils. The tomato salad, an afterthought at most Ethiopian restaurants, perhaps surprised me with the most. The tomatoes were some of the best I’ve tasted all season, exploding with a sweet flavor one can only get from local, ripe tomatoes at the height of summer. They were pared with finely chopped onions, jalapenos, and a pleasant vinaigrette that combined for an excellent salad and one that you could actually eat with the injera as opposed to the humongous chunks of tomato and bagged romaine I’ve encountered elsewhere. The gomen, one of my benchmarks at any Ethiopian restaurant, was another stunner; the collard greens were perfectly cooked with a subtle ginger sauce and garlic each of which elevated the dish beyond the boring interpretations I’ve tasted before. The misir wat was well prepared, with a slowly building heat and well cooked. It wasn’t the best example I’ve had but competently prepared and not soaked in oil which I appreciated. The Begerdan is to my experience unique to Blue Nile Café and one of their better vegetable dishes. It was good as usual though I thought the tomato sauce dominated the eggplant and bell pepper a tad too much. The same could not be said for the excellent Atkilt Watt where the tomato pared in just the right proportion with the tender green beans, carrots and potatoes. Last but not least was the Tikil Gomen, another excellent example of the classic stewed cabbage and potato dish in a gingery sauce, each component tender and savory. If there was anything to fault it might be the amount of food which given our ravenous appetites I would have liked slightly more of (although we didn’t ask for more which they have been happy to provide gratis in the past).
Finishing with our entrees we decided to split a slice of the vegan coffee cake (strawberry or orange) and a couple Ethiopian coffees (3.00 and 2.00 dollars respectively). The coffee cake has been on the menu ever since I first came to Blue Nile three years ago but I had yet to try it. The strawberry version was a revelation in vegan desserts, a sinfully delicious marriage of “cream” and layered coffee crumb with a sweet caramel and almond top. The coffee was another winner, strong but without the bitterness I typically associate with poorer coffee.
The service throughout was great. Our waitress paid attention to us without ever hounding us, keeping our water glasses full, offering refills for my father’s tea, and bringing food out promptly. There was a ten minute wait for our desserts but that was understandable given the increased business and the coffee which was freshly brewed.
Blue Nile has changed significantly over the last couple months but only for the better. Although I still have yet to try Tina’s, I can safely recommend Blue Nile for anyone even mildly interested in a different dining experience, particularly vegan/vegetarian diners. The food and flavors are fresh, the prices are affordable, and the service is spot on. Saturday was one of the best dining experiences I’ve had in the past few years, and I hope to repeat it soon.
DO make sure you find some time for Tina's. I was not impressed enough on my visit to Blue Nile to give them another shot. However, my standing rule has always been to allow two visits. Therefore, I probably should. I did ask my waiter about the Enjera, and he said that they do use wheat flour in the mix. Personally, I think this 'dumbs down' the experience a bit.
I would go to Lallibella once again, as I found it far tastier than BN.
Thanks for the report. I noticed the first inkling of these changes during my most recent visit. While I had an assortment of wats with injera, my friend had a chicken pita sandwich, something I was not expecting to see at Blue Nile. I wonder if the restaurant is trying to draw a broader clientele and overcome the veto power that one member of a dining party might exert if Ethiopian food seemed "too weird" for that one person. As for the coffee cake, I seem to be the only person who doesn't like it. I guess I just think that fresh fruit is the best vegan dessert of all. I share your enthusiasm for the eggplant dish, which is tasty and not something I've experienced elsewhere.
Blue Nile Cafe
933 E University Dr Ste 112, Tempe, AZ 85281
"I guess I just think that fresh fruit is the best vegan dessert of all"
Likewise but for someone who so rarely gets a chance to eat a conventional dessert, it was something of a novelty. Also something I forgot to mention was that Blue Nile was going to be carrying raw desserts/dishes in the future. Perhaps some fruit tarts/pies with raw nut crusts. Should be interesting.