Usually you are not served a washcloth with your meal, but The Blue Nile does things differently.
Clean hands are a must at the Ethiopian restaurant where patrons eat both meat and vegetable feasts with their hands, just using piles of thin, spongy injera bread to scoop up their food from one collective platter.
“It is an expression of togetherness and friendship,” manager Habte Dadi said. The platter is placed inside a raised wicker basket that serves as some of The Blue Nile’s tables. They are often more popular than booths and tables, Dadi said.
Sitting closely around the basket, surrounded by dim lights, soft gold and purple accents and engulfed in Ethiopian music, patrons will experience the Nile’s romantic atmosphere .
“Valentine’s Day is our very busiest single day,” Dadi said. He added that the Nile has hosted special occasions in couples’ relationships, from their first dates to their children’s birthdays.
The Blue Nile serves two all-you-can-eat feasts — with meat for $17.90 or without for $14.90 per person. While the menu is small, the servings are not. Heaps of lentils, peas, cabbage, potatoes and collared greens surround chicken, lamb and beef all atop a communal platter of injera bread. Without forks and spoons, customers use pieces of injera to scoop their meals up off their platters.
Refrigeration never became popular enough in Ethiopia to change the way its food was prepared, and for all of The Blue Nile’s modern resources, the restaurant does not use freezers to store food — meat and vegetables are delivered fresh three times a week. Most food is cooked in the daytime and steamed to keep it warm.
Ethiopian cuisine gets its unique flavor from its preparation that focuses on eliminating all fat from food, which is done at The Blue Nile by a full-time employee who cleans out the chicken and lamb. Chicken is marinated in lemon juice overnight to break down its grease, while lamb has its fat boiled-out. Dairy products are not used to make food, and even butter has its fat removed from it.
Tangy, barbeque-like berbere sauce flavors Zilzil Wat beef strips and Doro Wat chicken. While much of the food is made with jalapeno peppers, the food is not very spicy. But those with irritable stomachs may want to focus on the sweet Yebeg Alechais lamb and the mild Dordo Alecha.
Dadi said The Blue Nile’s food is less spicy than food from Ethiopia, though.
“We have to think about the customer’s taste. We don’t want to overpower them with spiciness,” he said.
The Nile’s drinks are just as interesting as its food. Customers can try a glass of honey wine or finish their meal off with tea made of rose hips, cinnamon, orange and lemon. The Blue Nile serves coffee made from Ethiopian beans that come from the country’s Kaffa region, which incidentally gives the drink its name.
Dadi estimates that most of his patrons are frequent customers, and he attributes the restaurant’s success to word-of-mouth — something that brought Manju Jois to The Blue Nile while he was visiting from California.
“I like it very much, it’s fabulous,” Jois said. “It’s very healthy, very tasty and very different.”
Ann Arbor resident Rafael Abrams said the diverse menu fits his tastes and that of his children.
“I’ve got kids, and they all like the food here,” Abrams said. “I always make sure to come here hungry.”
The Blue Nile
– 221 E. Washington St. (734) 998-4746
– Open Mon. – Sat. from 4 to 11 p.m. and Sun. from 3 to 9 p.m.