As a longtime fan of hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants (a friendly reminder: if the term “hole-in-the-wall” gives you happy memories of toilet stalls in truck stop restrooms, you might need help), I always have low expectations of everything besides the food itself. If the tables are dirty, the menus are tattered, and the service is clunky, that’s totally cool with me. If anything, I think crappy service can actually be a good sign. If a server puts great chow in front of me, I’m happy, unless the server is a total dickhead. And I can’t say that I’ve ever run across a total dickhead in an ethnic restaurant—just a charming lack of attention to details.
So Awash surprised me by being thoroughly awesome on all levels. I’d read some lukewarm reviews of the place, and wasn’t expecting much. We’d actually intended to eat somewhere else: Café Addis on 125th Street, a fun, clean, Ethiopian-owned bar that serves American-style sandwiches, but no Ethiopian food. The owner of Café Addis warned us away from some nearby Ethiopian and Eritrean spots, and sent us to Awash, nearly 20 blocks away. Thanks, Café Addis guy!
Along with two large friends, I ordered Awash’s combo for three people ($37.50), with collard greens cooked in onions and peppers (gomen), spicy lentils in red pepper sauce (yemesir kik wat), beef with peppers and onions in berbere sauce (special tibs), chicken stewed in onions and clarified butter (doro alicha), and a surprisingly tasty dish listed on the menu simply as “beets,” which I had never previously associated with Ethiopian or African food. In a nice touch, the food was plated so that each of us had a bit of each item in front of us, preventing us from reaching awkwardly across our massive shared platter. Nice job, Awash.
In most restaurants, Ethiopian food is what my sister would call “blorgy”—it makes you feel slightly fat and greasy, and makes you want to make “blorg” sounds while you (somewhat unsuccessfully) attempt to digest your meal. Awash scores points for serving flavorful but surprisingly non-blorgy food: our chicken was unusually light and delicious, the beets had barely a hint of oil in them, and the collards were gently stewed with only a hint of garlic—enough to be tasty, but not overpowering. Even the beef tibs and lentils, which often swim in a delicious puddle of grease, were expertly spiced, but blissfully light on the oil.
Awash also gets bonus points for offering Ethiopian honey wine (your choice of red or white, $8; the red version is sweetened with blackberry juice, and highly recommended if you’re into sweet wines) and a variety of Ethiopian beers (St. George, Harar, Addis, and Meta, $6 each). One of my companions attempted to order a Bud Light, and our server (hereafter referred to as Beer Savior) recommended that he try a Meta instead. All hail Beer Savior! Beer Savior magnanimously prevented a silly American from drinking another bottle of pisswater American beer. (Note: Bud Light, the quintessential pisswater American beer, is now produced by a Belgian company. Weird, right?)
But wait, it gets better: when Beer Savior brought me a post-dinner bottle of Addis, he took the time to pour the beer at the table, and eyed the glass critically before putting it down in front of me. He thought it looked funny, and maybe a little bit flat. He went back to the kitchen, and returned with another Addis. Also flat. Apologizing profusely, Beer Savior returned a few minutes later with a tasty, non-flat Meta instead of another Addis.
Really… who does that? Whenever I order a bottle of beer in a four-star restaurant, the server never bothers to examine the beer before serving it to me. (Ok, so when I say “four-star restaurant,” I mean an Irish pub. Close enough.) You’re my hero, Beer Savior. And your restaurant’s food is pretty good, too.
947 Amsterdam Ave. (at 106th), Manhattan
Subway: 103rd St. (1 train)