By Rachel Lebeaux – As a Jamaica Plain resident, “elated” may not be a strong enough word to describe my reaction when I heard Blue Nile was coming to the neighborhood two years ago. Under the steady hand of chef-owner Ellena Haile and ably managed by her brother Yosef, the simple, nine-table restaurant in Jamaica Plain’s Hyde Square churns out some of the most traditional, flavorful and well-priced food in all of Boston, offering a type of cuisine not especially well represented in these parts to a dining public that might be unfamiliar with the African nation’s best-known culinary creations.
And they accomplish all that without cooking with massive quantities of butter or salt. “There’s already lots of spice, and we want to be healthy,” Yosef explained on a recent weekday evening.
The quickest way to illustrate Yosef’s assertion is to dive straight into Blue Nile’s diverse menu, which gives meat eaters their due while also laying out a full range of vegetarian delights.
We started the meal with the ayeb begomen and mitmita ($3.99), an appetizer composed of crumbles of cottage cheese laced with strands of collard greens and suffused with cayenne pepper. It burst with spice and depth; we scooped it up with injera, the famously spongy, slightly sour Ethiopian flatbread made of teff flour, a fine grain. (It should be noted that utensils are rarely used when eating Ethiopian food.)
Sambosas ($3.50) are reminiscent of Indian samosas, and not only in name: the deep-fried, flaky triangles envelop spiced lentils or spinach, so we tried one of each. Those fillings, prepared with ginger, garlic, lemon and olive oil, nearly burst from the seams of their paper-thin pockets. The spinach was excellent; the lentils were a tad dry, and we felt a dipping sauce an accompaniment would have been welcome — especially if it were as flavorful as everything else the kitchen touches.
With the appetizers, I enjoyed a glass of Blue Nile tej ($5), an effervescent Ethiopian honey wine with bright citrus notes and a luscious sweetness. And while the flavors are definitely Ethiopian, the provenance of this specific batch is purely local: The wine is produced at Cantina Bostonia right here in Jamaica Plain, within the Sam Adams Brewery complex on Germania Street.
Diners can order individual entrees at Blue Nile (ranging from $7.50 to $16.99), but the best way to really acquaint yourself with Ethiopian cuisine and experience the restaurant’s range of ingredients, preparations and spices, is to order combinations plates. Presented on a round injera the size of a large pizza, the combinations allow you to go all-vegetarian or mix some meat-focused entrees (including beef, lamb and chicken) into your selections. We ordered the Vegetarian Revenge combo for two ($24.99), with a single beef entrée ($12.95).
What arrived at our table, rimming the edge of the injera, was a veritable kaleidoscope of colors, textures and tastes:
Misir wet, split red lentils prepared in spicy hot berbere sauce, a traditional Ethiopian blend that includes chili pepper, garlic, ginger, dried basil, cardamom and an assortment of other spices. The flavor is akin to barbecue sauce, but with far more complexity.
Shiro wet, a vegetarian dish composed of berbere sauce and roasted legume flour with ginger and garlic. The reddish stew, suggestive of refried beans, packs a flavorful punch without being too hot to handle.
Yekik alicha, split yellow peas simmered in red onion, olive oil, garlic and ginger. They were seasoned with a touch of turmeric; while tasty and certainly healthy, we found the pale-yellow stew a little plain in comparison to the other exceedingly flavorful options.
Gomen wet, chopped collard greens cooked with onions, peppers and a blend of herbs and spices. This is the dish for you if you like your leafy greens: the bitterness of the collards came through, as did a slight sweetness conferred by the onions.
Yatakilt wet, a bright mélange of fresh vegetables — carrots, string beans, potatoes, caramelized onions and fresh chili peppers — sautéed with ginger and garlic. The varied texture set this apart from the other stew-like dishes, and its mild sweetness, thanks largely to the carrots, was a nice touch.
Tikal gommen, a bounty of cabbage, onions, potatoes and chili peppers seasoned with cardamom, salt and pepper. Again, compared to the stews, this had some texture, with the vegetables prepared in olive oil to a nicely softened state.
Those were all vegetarian option; once we’d had an opportunity to get started on those, Yosef emerged from the kitchen and added a portion of lega tips to our injera. The tenderloin beef sautéed with onions, fresh tomatoes and chili peppers was unbelievable — front-loaded with flavor, a hearty, tender and rich counterpoint to the vegetable-based entrees. I adore the vegetarian entrees here but, based on this dish, I’ll have to try more meat-based dishes on the next visit.
Taken as a whole, it’s hard to imagine a meal with more varied, thrilling and perfectly spiced elements, all delivered to our mouths via hand-torn strips of injera.
It seemed a little incongruous, but we ended the meal with chocolate mousse cake. The cake itself was a bit dry, but the entire concoction was rich and dense, iced in miniature chocolate chips with a thick slick of ganache and a drizzle of chocolate sauce. My knowledge of Ethiopian sweets is admittedly very limited, but it would be wonderful to see some traditional desserts added to the menu.
The dining public would do well to remember that it doesn’t take a hoity-toity dining room or a high-priced menu to deliver an exotic, exciting and extensively varied meal. As with many ethnic restaurants, you’ll encounter flavor profiles here that simply don’t exist at many establishments, at prices that make cooking you own dinner at home seem like a bad deal. The simple dining room is intimate and welcoming (and, if it’s full, there’s always carryout). There should be more restaurants in Boston like Blue Nile. Jamaica Plain is lucky to call it one of its own.
Address: 389 Centre Street, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130
Price: Appetizers $3.50-$4.50; entrees $7.50-$16.99; combination plates $12.99 to $28.99
Hours: Mon-Fri: 5pm-11pm; Sat-Sun: 12pm-11pm (kitchen until 12am). Takeout. Mon-Fri: 5pm-10:30pm; Sat & Sun: 2pm-10:30pm
Features: Beer and wine, combination plates, takeaway service, food sold at Whole Foods.
Recommendations: Blue Nile tej, ayeb begomen and mitmita, sambosas, misir wet, shiro wet, gomen wet, yatakilt wet, lega tips.