Out with the American-Chinese restaurant Dragon House in Columbia Heights, and in with Adama Restaurant. The location changed ownership earlier this fall, and there’s nothing particularly American about the new menu (other than the kid’s menu, which is full-on American). While we were fine with the American Chinese incarnation, we were even more excited to check out a place reputed to serve authentic Ethiopian cuisine with a focus on the food of the Oromo people.
Adama has a menu full of authentic Ethiopian dishes (available for lunch and dinner). The first dish we tried was the Lentil Sambusa ($6 for 4 pieces). These were delicious, fried without being overly greasy, and generously filled with lentils and onions. The accompanying green sauce, redolent of cilantro and jalapeño, reminded us of a similar sauce at Som Taste; that’s not surprising, given that Somalia shares a sizable portion of Ethiopia’s southern and eastern borders.
We’d heard the Doro Wot ($12), a classic Ethiopian stew of chicken and boiled egg with an intense, spicy sauce, was good here, and we decided to order that along with the Adama Combo #1 ($25), a platter with portions of Alecha Misor Wot, Tibs, and Keye Wot served with Spiced Cottage Cheese, all atop injera bread.
Here’s where things took a strange — but not unwelcome — turn. The menu described the above dishes this way:
Alecha Misor Wot: Split lentils cooked with fresh garlic, ginger, onions, and tomato sauce
Keye Wot: Tender beef cubes simmered in a spicy sauce of onion, tomato, garlic, berbere sauce or red pepper
Tibs: Chopped prime beef, onions, and tomatoes, cooked with butter
The meal arrived, along with a bowl of spongy injera, and at first glance, it looked like what we’d ordered. All the entrees were assembled on one large platter, with enough food to feed 4-6 people. As traditional for an Ethiopian meal, food is served in one large spread, and diners use the injera to scoop up the food from the communal platter to eat it, rather than using utensils.
In the center of this mammoth platter was the Doro Wot, which had a terrific sauce with complex, deep flavors that only come from a long simmer. The chicken drumstick that was buried in the sauce was slightly overcooked and a bit dry, but not unbearably. The mild injera was a perfect foil for the spicy, flavorful, earthy sauce.
But when we tucked into what looked like the Tibs, we started to feel confused. The meat didn’t quite taste like beef, but closer to the sharper flavor of lamb. Instead of onions, there were large chunks of sauteed peppers. We asked our server about it, and he agreed it was lamb. Fine; we like lamb. And this was good: a simple, mild dish, the meat nicely cooked and tender, rich with the buttery sauce.
The dish we thought was lentils may have had lentils in it, but it also had a great deal of something not mentioned on the menu: Chicken. Again, we like chicken, but when you order something that’s described as being made primarily of lentils, chicken is a surprise. The sauce was flavorful but not spicy and tasted like something that had cooked slowly. No one at the table was vegetarian, but it might have been problematic for someone who is vegetarian to find themselves with a pile of chicken.
The Keye Wot was the only dish that seemed entirely as billed. It had a kick to it, although not as powerful as the Doro Wot. It, too, was complex, although lighter than the Doro Wot. The beef was melty-tender and tasted of cumin and black pepper.
The platter also came with Spiced Cottage Cheese, but no one at the table could detect any spice whatsoever, nor any remotely cheesey flavor. It occurred to us that its role on the platter might be as a dairy offset to the spicier dishes, and it turned out that taking a bite of the cheese after a bite of the Doro Wot did tame the burning in the mouth.
Two sides were included, a dish of cabbage with carrots and a dish of of collard greens, both cooked with red onions and tomato. They added a change of texture and an almost vinegary flavor, cutting through the rich sauces.
Our server was anxious to help us, but there was a language barrier, so we’re still not entirely sure why the menu changes occurred. Was this a matter of a cultural difference, such as the one we found when we went to the Ethiopian coffee ceremony at Limu Coffee? Possibly. And if so, we’re OK with that. Would we recommend Adama? Absolutely. Nearly everything we ate was delicious. But if you have dietary restrictions, be prepared to go over them up front.
Ethiopian cuisine in Columbia Heights
3970 Central Avenue NE
Columbia Heights MN 55421
HOURS: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / On request
ENTREE RANGE: $10-$22
NOISE LEVEL: Quiet
PARKING: Free lot behind the restaurant, free street parking in front