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Sea Change of Pace

Red Sea Restaurant
Christopher Gardner

African Fire: The ambiance is as warm as the Ethiopian food is hot at the Red Sea Restaurant.

The Red Sea charms diners with the earthy cuisine of Ethiopia

By Christina Waters

IT WAS MY lunch partner, Anne, who commented on the beautiful names of the dishes at Red Sea, a gracious venue for Ethiopian cooking. "Atakilt alitcha," she said aloud. "Yedoro wot," she continued. "They sound like names from Star Wars."

So they did, but the food here is anything but extraterrestrial. Presented upon edible platters of pliant bread, the soft vegetable stews, legumes and spicy meats of this north African region are intensely earth-toned. Terracotta, golden yellow, mahogany--colors very easy on the eyes. So is the little craftsman home that's been converted into an ethnic restaurant by way of pretty plants, handsome textiles and a collection of crafts.

Given the heat of the day, we indulged in a midday beer, splitting a big bottle of Mamba, an Ivory Coast malt liquor ($4.95) that went perfectly with the cuisine. Vegetable dishes that showcase legumes, onions, tomatoes and a dazzling array of spices share the menu with some chicken, beef, lamb and fish offerings. And there's a combination platter for $9.95 (everything is $1 cheaper at lunchtime) that samples the menu's greatest hits.

We were fascinated with the frequent appearance of berbere on the menu. Looking closer, we found that this complex blend of spices forms the foundation of sauces for meats and vegetables, which in turn are served with a huge millet flour pancake, called an injera. Berbere includes, but is not limited to, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, red pepper, coriander, cardamom, turmeric, fenugreek, basil, rock salt and rue, and it is incredibly delicious.

Our lunch arrived with four items arranged on the circular injera. All Ethiopian meals are designed this way--a communal platter to be accessed by hand, and with much happy sharing.

A split lentil stew, yemisa alitcha ($5.75), was gorgeously perfumed with onions, garlic and ginger and stained deep yellow with turmeric. It was a huge hit and we consumed every trace. A spicy seafood dish ($6.95) was quite tasty, filled with some peppery kick, lots of moist shrimp, red bell peppers and more of the sweet onions that seem required in every dish. In the center sat a bean puree--garbanzo, probably--that was also sensuous and tasty. We liked the heroically named atakilt alitcha ($5.95), which turned out to be like a big veggie stew with spicing that came close to Indian curries. The fourth dish, chicken with berbere sauce ($7.95), proved less charming. Though the cinnamon-hued sauce was complex, almost like a Mexican mole, the chicken itself was overcooked.

With so many spicing possibilities, Ethiopian food is anything but bland. The use of peppers with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, turmeric and garlic infuses vegetables with a sense of mystery. But some of our dishes, like the wonderful lentils, remained quite tame to the palate. A walk on the wild side, however, was easily achieved by applying some of the sauces brought with lunch.

Desserts taste especially sweet after spicy food, and we decided to try something unusual recommended by our host. I'm not sure what we thought a pound cake blended with fruit would be like, but we weren't prepared for the pretty scoop of what tasted like cookie dough covered with whipped cream ($3). Fruit, probably plums, had been puréed along with pound cake, formed into a ball and presented with mint and cream. We loved it. Anne really loved it. As I reached into my purse to pay for lunch, she quickly finished most of it and then just grinned shamelessly. I was content with my cup of strong coffee spiced, in Ethiopian fashion, with pungent cardamom seed.

Nice meal. And such a treat to find the Red Sea still going strong, parting the residential waters of the North First Street neighborhood.

Red Sea Restaurant

Cuisine: Authentic Ethiopian dishes
Ambiance: Cottage transformed into intimate dining rooms
Prices: Entrees $5­$9
Hours: Lunch 11am­2pm; dinner 5­9pm. Closed Sunday.
Address: 684 N. First St., San Jose
Phone: 408/993-1990

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From the Aug. 27-Sept. 3, 1997 issue of Metro.

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