Diner: Piquant Mouthful

Pleasant Ridge restaurant offers soul food, Ethiopian style

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Open the front door of this sky blue building, and you feel as if you just stepped into someone's home — with a few extra tables set up in the front rooms, waiting for family, friends or the unexpected visitor who might turn up with an appetite. "Drop on by" is the attitude that prevails, as if cooking only for the members of the household could earn one a bad reputation. A smiling Samuel Yhdego looks delighted to welcome you in: It seems he's had already heard you were in need of some nourishment and is only too glad to be the one to provide it for you.

Bright aquamarine walls display a few world knickknacks in an otherwise unadorned room. Contemporary Jazz weaves through the laughter and conversations of the other 20 guests while Samuel's brother, Maleek, tends to the largest table, delivering oversized platters of exotic smelling food.

It isn't too fanciful to say that this is cooking that comes from the heart. Emanu Mogos, proprietress, cook and mother of Samuel and Maleek, offers a simple menu of 14 dishes originating from their Ethiopian homeland. Like most good home cooking, rigid recipes are rare. Cooks develop their skills by experimenting with different ingredients and cooking methods, following their instincts rather than written instruction.

East African's menu centers around the traditional spicy African stew called "watt," traditionally the whole meal at lunch or dinner.

Watt can be made using various fish, meats or vegetables and is served with another staple, "injera," a large, spongy, sourdough crêpe that has a dual role as serving platter and utensil. A piece of injera is wrapped around a bite of watt and eaten with fingers. Any leftover injera is used to sop up the savory juices essential to every dish.

Emanu offers three or four dishes each in four categories: Beef, Lamb, Poultry and Vegetarian. We selected three vegetarian and one poultry dish two different visits. Atkilt Watt ($5.50) consists of a mildly spiced mixture of green beans, carrots, potatoes and onions, while bright mounds of red and yellow lentils comprise Misir Watt ($5.50). Beyaynetu ($7), the vegetarian sampler, is a combination of Atkilt Watt, Misir Watt and Gomen — cooked collard greens with onions and pepper. Of these three dishes we preferred the red lentils and the collard greens: Both were spicy and flavorful. Of all the dishes, only the yellow lentils from Misir Watt and the Doro Alicha ($7), two curried chicken legs cooked in seasoned butter, onion and green pepper and served with a whole hardboiled egg, were met with mild enthusiasm: They were tasty, but not quite as interesting. All four dinners arrived on large, round platters lined with the injera and, although silverware was available, we never used it. The injera was the perfect utensil to envelop each piquant mouthful, with plenty left over to wipe the platters clean.

Be prepared to wait a bit for your dinner. Even though this is a small, 35-seat restaurant, mom is doing a solo gig in the kitchen, cookin' up a mess of soul food, Ethiopian style.

Go: 6025 Montgomery Road, Pleasant Ridge

Call: 513-351-7686

Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 4-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 4-11 p.m.; closed Sunday-Monday.

Prices: Inexpensive

Payment: Cash or checks. No credit cards.

Red Meat Alternatives: Four menu items are vegan (no dairy products or animal fats).

Other: Carry out. No liquor license, so bring your own wine or beer.

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