The operators of the Blue Nile African Restaurant in Esquimalt do their best to create an authentic atmosphere for diners, as well as provide traditional Ethiopian cuisine. Facebook

REVIEW: Ethiopian cuisine offers an escape from the everyday

Allan Reid appreciates the food, ambience at Blue Nile buffet-style restaurant in Esquimalt

Allan Reid

Monday Magazine restaurant columnist

The Blue Nile rises out of Lake Tana in northern Ethiopia and flows a circuitous 1,600 kilometres before arriving in Khartoum, Sudan where it joins the White Nile and they become, simply, the Nile.

I have been enjoying Blue Nile African Restaurant for more than a decade, almost since the day I moved to Victoria, when I would break from unpacking to enjoy a quick and inexpensive dinner just up the street.

The warm and welcoming ambience is appropriately African. Orange walls are adorned with African masks, wood carvings and paintings sheltered beneath a thatch soffit that encircles the room. Tablecloths are patterned with African themes, and contemporary African music plays softly in the background. The place is not large and tables are a bit too close, but the room is acoustically soft and conversation is easy.

The buffet-style format at Blue Nile offers a taste of traditional Ethiopian cuisine.

Blue Nile offers buffet-style dinners for $14.95. Everyone pays the same price: there is no menu, so don’t be shy, don’t wait to be seated, don’t wait to be served, just step right up.

Ethiopian cuisine is dominated by three essential elements: injera, wot and berbere.

Injera is a soft, spongy sourdough flat bread that is the foundation of an Ethiopian meal. Accordingly, Blue Nile serves it at the start of the line in a traditional basket shaped something like a Moroccan Tajine. Roll the injera out on a plate and then proceed to the second essential element: wot.

Wot is stew that may be focused on beef, lamb or chicken, but never pork, or it may be vegetarian, focused on beans, lentils or corn. Blue Nile offers wot in a dozen different ways. Whatever its central ingredient, almost all wot features the third essential element, berbere.

This quintessential African spice mix, heavy with powdered chili peppers, is not equally spicy across all dishes: some are quite mild, and I doubt that many will find any of the food here to be outrageously spicy.

I would happily suggest a few stand out, but Blue Nile does not label their buffet. This is unfortunate, for names are often the first avenue to understanding and key to remembering what was enjoyed in the past. In addition, Ethiopian names are interesting to Canadian diners and would add to the feeling of exotic authenticity to which the decor clearly aspires.

Ethiopians dob small amounts of different wot across the injera’s bubbly surface. As this is a buffet, resist the urge to put too many, or too much, onto a single roll. Judicious rationing may be the key to clean eating.

Abraham Verghese, in his book Cutting for Stone, claims that one can tell true Ethiopians by the ease with which they tear the injera and capture the wot without ever dirtying their fingers. This feat is beyond me, though I continue to try. Thankfully, Blue Nile offers Western cutlery and napkins.

Although I enjoy the food and ambience here, the restaurant does sometimes disappoint in odd ways. My most recent visit offered two examples.

First, I was disappointed to step up to the buffet and find that some of the chafing dishes were quite low, but then an hour later these same dishes contained only scraps. No attempt was made to fill them. It was not that I dined late, for I arrived just after six. My second complaint was the absence of Blue Nile’s wonderful salad, which sits beside the injera basket, but only on weekends. Why not on weekdays, you might ask? I received no good answer.

Still, I keep going back because sometimes I need a break from the typical, and because the food is just so satisfying.

Blue Nile

#3-612 Head St.

bluenileafricanrestaurant.com

250-475-6453

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