One of my greatest culinary pleasures consists in introducing other people, as well as myself, to cuisines and flavors they have not previously encountered. When my sister Kathy was a kid we always made a point of taking her to different ethnic restaurants when she visited. While this sometimes backfired (we pushed her too far on eating Indian and French food and only now she's willing to try it), it made her a fan of a number of different cuisines. And it created a number of rituals, one of which is to take her to the Blue Nile, the Ethiopian restaurant in Berkeley, when she visits.
This visit I put off going for Ethiopian until the last minute as I was pregnant and the thought of the heavy, butter-laden Ethiopian cuisine wasn't appetizing. Still a tradition is a tradition and Saturday night (July 2004) we headed out for Ethiopian food. The Blue Nile was a no go; it had closed for vacation the day before, and Mike decided on Cafe Colucci. We had been there once before, years ago, and my recollections was of good but very spicy food. The food was good - though we all still prefer the Blue Nile - and less spicy than we expected.
The little restaurant occupies one and half rooms on Telegraph Avenue near Alcatraz in Oakland. It sits next to an African art store and a shop selling Ethiopian foodstuff, essentially creating a mini-mall. The dining room itself is quite nice, with Ethiopian art decorating its honey-colored walls and undulating cloths covering the ceiling giving it a tent-like atmosphere. The tables are quite small - big people will feel crowded sitting side to side - but some of them are very cool. Our table had eight panels filled with different grains and beans under a glass sheet. The other room, where the open kitchen was, is devoid of any atmosphere and apparently is only used when the restaurant is completely full. There seems to be sidewalk dining during the day, but they don't have heaters so it's too cold to eat out at night.
The menu is quite comprehensive and includes practically every Ethiopian dish you've ever heard of. There is a large selection of vegetarian and meat dishes. For those who can't decide, there are both vegetarian and meat samplers. The meat one ($11) includes all the meat house specialties: doro (chicken) wat and doro alicha, begue (lamb) wat and sega (beef) alicha and gomen be sega (collard greens with beef). Wats are sauces spiced with berbere, a very potent mixture of spices, while alicha are non-spiced sauces. We decided on ordering two meat samplers and an order of banatu ($8), a dish of spicy beef stewed with injera. All the dishes were served family style on a large platter which included sour cream, a salad and kinche (cooked bulgur) and were served with rolled-up tef injera. As is often the case at Ethiopian restaurants, the presentation was beautiful.
The food was very good and the portions appropriate. We liked the contrast between the spicy and non-spicy dishes. The sega alicha was particularly delicious, and probably worth ordering all on its own. Of all the dishes I think the doro wat was probably the least successful. I've noticed when I cook Ethiopian food myself that sometimes the sauce doesn't blend well, making for a slightly-bitter, non-homogenized taste. That seemed to have happened to the doro wat, though it was still good enough that there was none left at the end of the meal. The berbere dishes weren't as spicy as I remembered, though that may have been because Kathy discovered that if we soaked the injera in sour cream before picking up the spicy meats and sauces, the spice was largely neutralized. It may also have been because I had a cold, though - but Kathy who is not a lover of spices didn't find the food terribly spicy either.
The menu features three desserts: tiramisu, a chocolate mousse cake and baklava. Kathy loves tiramisu and insists that she try it wherever she finds it, so we ordered some for her and a slice of chocolate mousse cake for the rest of us. The desserts came out of a box, but Kathy was happy with the tiramisu. I wasn't thrilled with the chocolate mousse' it didn't taste like much to me, though my cold and the spices from dinner may have anesthetized my taste buds by then.
Though small, the restaurant seemed quite child friendly. They had high chairs and there were three other parties with small children that evening (which helped as Mika was tired and whiny at the beginning). Though it's not a great neighborhood, we felt comfortable taking Mika out of the restaurant when she got too impatient and playing with her in the area right outside it.
Service was okay, but became very slow at the end of the evening; they are clearly understaffed. It took a long time before our plates were taken out, even longer before they came to take our order for dessert and just as long to get the bill after we were done eating it. This was a problem as Mika could no longer sit still (which is why we had to take her outside).
In all, we had a very nice dinner. We still like the Blue Nile more for its cooler atmosphere and great mixed juice drinks, but I would certainly go back to Cafe Colucci.
6427 Telegraph Ave