Addis in Cape

We’ve had a fairly high proportion of upmarket choices for Salty Cracker lately – culminating, in fact, in the expensive delights of the Roundhouse, plus a recent Overture visit – and I was very much in the mood for something rather more cosy and informal. We also had a sampling of Addis in Cape’s food as takeout at a friend’s birthday party a month or so ago, and I was still queasy after gastric ‘flu at the time and definitely wanted to revisit the cuisine properly, so Addis in Cape it was. This is Ethiopian food, and it completely hit the spot in terms of the vibe I wanted.

Addis is in Long Street, on the corner of Church, and is a cheery red-painted building on three floors, with a very lovely feel in terms of décor. Sod’s Law, however, naturally dictated that the one time we have to climb two flights of stairs to eat, has to be the month in which Jo has put her knee out and is hobbling around with a crutch. There is, alas, no lift, and I have to say it would probably wreck the vibe if there were. The staff were very concerned and sweet about her slow and epic ascent. It’s a typical old Long Street building, wooden floors and old plaster, and they’ve incorporated the feel into the decoration – bits of the walls have artfully-left patches of bare brick, which goes very nicely with the wooden chairs and basketwork, and the slightly run-down feel gives a very strong sense of African street-market. The colours are all orange and red, warm and slightly smoky with candles, and the restaurant’s habit of burning incense as part of the coffee ceremony means that the whole thing smells slightly exotic, a sensual vibe intensified by the Ethiopian music. I loved the medieval-style artwork on the walls, and the lampshades made from giant, colourful, inverted cloth umbrellas, as well as the curly Ethiopian writing everywhere (there’s a basic phrasebook painted on the bar).

The restaurant doesn’t have tables, it has baskets. Giant, conical baskets with a wide, flat top attached, just the right size for the huge plate which feeds all four of the diners at once, and which you huddle around on the low, cushioned, carved, wooden chairs. The giant plate is simply the base for the giant sourdough pancake which covers it, and onto which the different dishes are tipped in little piles from the small pottery bowls in which they are served. You are given another basket filled with what we inevitably christened “bandages” – strips of pancake rolled neatly into a roll. You tear off a piece about 5-6cm square, and you use it to swoop down on bits of the stew-styled dishes and pop them into your mouth without actually getting any on your fingers. It’s surprisingly intuitive; there’s something hard-wired about eating like this, I found I was doing it automatically without even thinking about it. It’s also very liberating to feel that the eating-with-your-hands thing is not only permitted, it’s the only way = they don’t bring utensils. And they wash your hands for you before and after eating. It makes you realise what an enormously wide range of behaviour is actually covered by the concept of “civilised”.

The food itself is lovely – spicy, occasionally with a bite to it, but with a wonderful and distinctive balance of spices and flavours, heavy on the garlic, ginger, turmeric and cardamom. A lot of the dishes rely on berbere, or on a spicy clarified butter thing called kibe. We went for the set menu, which gives you starter, mains with 8 dishes and dessert with coffee or tea. The format is stew rather than large chunks of meat, and I am very happy to report that the Ethiopian word for stew appears to be wot (a stirfy is tibs). It made a welcome distraction from the inevitable and ongoing attempt not to make lame and offensive jokes about starving Ethiopians.

The starter came on a pancake which seemed to have been spiced and oiled and baked in the oven, so it was crispy – a bit like a cross between a pancake and a pappadom. No bandages with this – you break off chunks of the crispy pancake and dip them in the spicy lentil dip, or the spinach/cheese one. The lentils were the winner here – smooth and bitey and piquant. But I could cheerfully have eaten the pancake without any accompaniment at all. We flattened it, and wiped out the dip bowls with our fingers. (“We” here is Jo and me, who seem to be particularly uninhibited with this sort of thing).

The main course gave us a very spicy beef stew, a very good lamb one, something flavourful with slightly chewy prawns, and an absolute winner of a slow-cooked chicken thing, rich and dark and flavoured with, I think, lime juice as well as the spices. There was another spicy lentil sauce thing, a sort of tomato/onion salady side dish, and a wonderful spinach conglomeration, not to mention the sweetcorn mix and some random carrot/pumpkin bits around the side. Possibly a garnish. We ate it anyway. We also ordered an extra to the set meal, a helping of something called kitfo, which is the Ethiopian equivalent of steak tartare – very finely ground beef with spices and chilli, almost a paste, and incredibly good. I found it easier to eat large quantities of this than I usually do with tartare, which I enjoy but can’t take beyond about three mouthfuls. While we all had favourites here (mine were the chicken and the spinach), they were all good – similar stews in style, but with enough variation of flavour and spicing that they weren’t in any way monotonous. The little bits of pancake with every mouthful also mean that you’re getting a fair whack of carbohydrate, and you end up feeling very full.

Dessert was a bit arbitrary, slightly leathery baklava or berries with ice-cream, and a bit of a let-down in that it didn’t continue the authentic Ethiopian theme (the nice waiter did apologise for this, and inform us that Ethiopian meals don’t really do dessert). But the coffee was presented in a beautiful silver pot with little china handle-less cups, accompanied by the aforementioned incense, and the tea I ordered (I’ve given up on coffee, the heartburn isn’t worth it) was flavoured with cloves and honey and was absolutely wonderful.

The overall vibe and feel here really are great. The staff are also lovely – cheerful and attentive and with a slightly amateur touch which really fits with the ambience. (I think a lot of them are also Ethiopian, which means it’s sometimes a little difficult to understand them through the unfamiliar accent). We brought a bottle of wine (Australian cabernet courtesy of Eckie, perfect for the meat-heavy meal), but the second bottle off the wine list was inexpensive, and there’s a fair choice. It was a lovely evening all round, comfortable and flavourful and a bit different.

On the Famous Jo scale:
Atmosphere: 9 / 10 (even with the stair problem, the vibe is lovely)
Staff: 8 / 10 (very sweet, beaming, warm)
Service:7 / 10 (can be a little slow at times)
Food: 8.5/ 10 (lovely flavours within its slightly limited range)
Value for money: 8.5 / 10 (really not expensive given the experience and the size of the meal)