Members of the Gatur family opened their eponymous Allen Street restaurant a year ago, adding exotic African spice to Allentown’s menu with a tidy list of meat, vegetable and legume dishes.
Ceramic plates decorate beige walls in the space formerly occupied by Falafel Bar and Nadia’s Taste of Soul.
Starters include ful, or stewed beans with tomatoes ($3.50); discs of fried chickpeas called bagia ($2); and sambusas, little triangular fried pastries stuffed with seasoned beef, mixed vegetables or lentils ($2.50). We opted for the combination appetizer platter ($8.50).
There are six meat dishes and six vegetable dishes, which can be ordered alone or in combinations, meant to serve one person. There also are family-style platters, which the menu said serves three to four.
They all come with the Ethiopian injera bread, which is more like a big thick pancake. There also are two special rice dishes, with braised lamb chops ($13.50) and a roasted half chicken ($12). I also asked for a cup of spiced tea ($2).
We asked for a veggie combo that would serve as half of four meals, and the server said we could downsize the $35 veggie family style platter, at $25. We added a two-meat combo plate – kitfo, ground beef in spiced butter, plus beef tibs, a beef stew – with two vegetables ($22). Plus a plate of rice with “roasted chicken cooked with onions, garlic and spices” ($12).
The appetizer platter bore pairs of lentil, beef and vegetable sambusas. I liked the cardamom-scented beef best. The vegetable version sported peas and carrots, and the lentils were whole green ones, not mush. Both benefited significantly from applications of the bright green chile chutney accompaniment. The meekly seasoned bite-sized fried chickpea discs offered a homey satisfaction, and made excellent chutney scoops, too.
Spiced tea was served in a small glass with cardamom and clove that met widespread approval once sweetened.
The server didn’t ask how I wanted the kitfo. It arrived well-done, which is not my favorite. It was also missing the cottage cheese the menu promised.
The ground beef had been cooked dry, but there was no denying the beguiling deliciousness of its aromatic clarified butter. Raw kitfo scares lots of folks, but cooked kitfo bears a comforting resemblance to ground beef stroganoff, minus the mushroom cream. Of the 10 dishes on our table, the kitfo was emptied first, with an injera mop-up operation.
Beef and lamb tibs are sometimes pan-fried, but Gatur’s had stewed beef pieces cooked with caramelized onions, tender enough and oddly familiar.
The two vegetables were miseir watt, gently seasoned yellow lentils cooked with onions and peppers, and kike alicha watt, red lentils cooked with garlic and tomatoes. The yellow lentils were satisfying vegetarian comfort food, while the red packed a lick of heat and garlic I found more interesting.
The platter included a house salad of chopped romaine, onion and tomato in a light, peppery dressing.
The vegetable platter was a vegetarian playground. Besides the yellow and red lentils, and a pile of house salad, there were four dishes.
Key sir – beets, potatoes, carrots and onions – was a ruby pleasure, with tender, firm chunks in a mild sauce. Shiro watt, ground chickpeas cooked with garlic, was tasty but lacked the toasty background flavor of my favorite. The collard greens in the gomen watt, simmered with garlic, onions and peppers, retained their texture.
Curomba watt, cabbage with potatoes and carrots, was the only one I thought dull, even though the vegetables were firm, not mushy.
The rice with chicken plate sported salad, aromatic, orange-flecked long-grain rice, and half a chicken. It was on the dry side but not intolerable, and the marinade hadn’t made its way through the bird. The result wasn’t terrible, just bland by comparison after enjoying the breadth of the Ethiopian spice palette.
Four desserts are listed on the menu, all $2.50, each a variety of sweetened fried bread or fritters. The mutabuq ($2.50) was akin to Ethiopian doughnut holes, fried dough bites sprinkled with powdered sugar and grated chocolate. They were simple and happily adequate. The malawah, crispy pan-fried bread dough drizzled with honey and more shaved chocolate, were crunchy, flaky bites that made me wish I’d ordered the spiced tea at the end.
The tables were bare and clean, and the fabric-covered chairs were comfortable, though some could use spot cleaning.
I have enjoyed meals at Buffalo’s three Ethiopian places. I found Gatur’s dishes less emphatically spiced than Lucy’s or Mike’s. I asked for mitmita, the intoxicatingly fiery Ethiopian spice blend, and found that a few pinches perked up the tamer dishes.
The service at Gatur’s was precise. We got our food warm, and faster than Lucy’s. Our server wasn’t as chatty and interested in explaining the food as Genet at Mike’s, but then no one is, and the Gatur’s server was apparently working the dining room solo.
We had a solid meal of satisfying food. I’ll probably revisit the other Ethiopian places before I return.
Gatur’s Ethiopian Cuisine: 7 Plates (Out of 10)
Ethiopian family restaurant offers delights for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.
WHERE: 69 Allen St. (www.gaturs.com, 881-1832)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $2.50-$8.50; entrees, $6.50-$13; combo platters, $22-$45.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.