Lucy Ethiopian was the first Ethiopian place in town, all the way back in March.
There's three now, but I figured I should start at the beginning. Abba Biya and his wife, Naima Tesfu, opened a small 20-seat place in a converted bodega at the corner of Amherst and Grant streets. It's homey, with padded window seats, music pumping out of a laptop, and posters of Ethiopian women. The atmosphere is more like a guy bringing people food in his living room than a formal restaurant.
We seated ourselves, and read through the menu. It sports about a dozen each of vegetarian and meat choices, from lamb, beef and chicken to the chickpea flour stew, lentils, cabbage and other meatless offerings. Some Ethiopian dishes, such as awaze tibs ($9.99) resemble stir-fries, in this case chunks of marinated beef cooked with tomato, jalapeño, garlic and red chili sauce.
Many others, like misir wat, red lentils cooked with red peppers, spices and onions ($5.99), resemble intensely flavored Indian curries. They can be spicy or not, so ask if it matters to you.
I would recommend asking for a vegetarian ($8.99) or meat combination ($12.99). Those are listed as specific dishes on the menu, but when Biya came over to talk to us, we found him willing to negotiate specifics. So we asked for a beef dish, their lone chicken dish (doro wat, a stew with bone-in chicken and hard-boiled eggs, $9.99 by itself) and two lamb dishes, plus a vegetarian combo.
I also wanted to try the kitfo ($11.99), the classic Ethiopian dish of raw beef flavored with cardamom, chili, more spices and herbed butter, served with fresh cheese. (They grind the beef themselves, Biya said.) You can adjust the heat, and get it partly or fully cooked. I asked him to bring it the way he likes it, raw and seriously spicy. I also asked for two sambusas (75 cents each), triangular pastries stuffed with beef or lentils.
Half an hour later, we got a huge platter of food. Pools of different dishes were arrayed on a sheet of spongy injera bread, which is more like a pancake. The combination of colors and textures were interesting, evoking an artist's palette.
As it turned out, we'd been served no chicken, no beef and lots of lamb dishes. But we started eating Ethiopian style, tearing off pieces of injera and using them as edible scoops.
The kitfo had the iron tang of beef tartare followed by a spicy blast of chili and deeper spice flavors. I cooled bites by combining the raw pâté with fresh cheese and injera, but that only helped so much to blunt the chili. I was sweating but kept eating because I enjoyed it so much.
The red lentils were earthy and homey. The yellow lentils were mild and meek, but served alongside a little pool of spice paste that when stirred in made things considerably more exciting. There was also diced beets, cabbage and carrot stew and a tender cabbage preparation, but my favorite vegetarian dish was the shiro, a brick-red paste made from roasted chickpea flour, for its blend of nuttiness and spice.
The lamb tibs stir-fry with onions and spices had dry, chewy meat, but the flavor made it worth working for. Tender stewed lamb was served in spicy and mild iterations; the spicy one made Cat say yikes, but she soldiered on, trying everything but kitfo.
A diced tomato salsa, a sort of Ethiopian pico de gallo, was the only uncooked component, and helped brighten up other bites with its hit of juicy tomato and jalapeño.
An hour after we originally ordered, I asked if the chicken was still coming. Biya said he'd get some. About 15 minutes later he returned with doro wat on more injera. The chicken was powerfully flavored, spicy and intense, clearly after a lengthy simmer but still on the drumstick. The tender meat and thick sauce, built on dark caramelized onion, was delicious but had been served lukewarm.
The food at Lucy Ethiopian was enjoyable, and it is reasonably priced. We ordered everything we could think of and took home two boxes of leftovers for $50. Biya clearly aims to please and was a gracious host. Unfortunately, the rest of the experience was short on creature comforts many diners would expect.
>> RESTAURANT REVIEW
Review: 6 plates (Out of 10)
Tiny, family-run place ?offers tasty Ethiopian dishes ?in humble setting.
WHERE: 388 Amherst St. ?(877-5829, ?www.lucyethiopianbuffalo.com)
HOURS: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
PRICE RANGE: Vegetarian dishes, $4.99-$8.99; meat dishes, $5.99-$12.99.
PARKING: On the street.WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No.