Since moving to Memphis from Ethiopia at age 16, Ermyias Shiberou has worn a lot of hats. He's been a DJ, a cab driver, and a pizza delivery boy. He's fixed houses, welded, and landscaped. But he says that all along, his true passion was for food.
"For me, this is soul food," reflects Shiberou, chef and owner at the new Blue Nile Ethiopian Kitchen. "When I taste that lamb stew, it takes me right back to my childhood in Addis Ababa."
How's that for a recommendation? Sure enough, when I try the Yebeg Wat (lamb stew, $12), I feel as though I'm being transported to the spice market in Addis Ababa. The heady smells, the colorful fabrics — and heck, I've never been there. One tip: Order the spicy version of this dish, which blossoms with the heat.
Blue Nile opened last month, but Shiberou's hardly new to this game. For three years, he's been serving up top-notch kebabs from his food truck, Stickem.
What might come as a surprise to anyone acquainted with those kebabs is Shiberou's facility with vegetables. Stickem is all about grilled fauna, but Blue Nile broadens its palate to include several scrumptious flora. (Bonus: Because Ethiopians don't really mess around with dairy, all the vegetarian dishes also happen to be vegan.)
Take the Shiro Wat (chickpea stew, $9) — warming and savory and fragrant with Silk Road spices. You scoop up a bite with the spongy sourdough flatbread called injera — which is fun, it's kind of like finger painting. But don't worry: If you'd rather operate with a fork and knife, Blue Nile has those too.
Don't leave without trying the Red Snapper ($15). The preparation of this dish is devastatingly simple: panfried and dressed with olive oil and lime. When it arrives at table, it looks like something prehistoric: a dinosaur fish, mouth gaping, eyes bugging. But — when I tasted it, at least — it was right up there with the best fish in the city.
Blue Nile Ethiopian Kitchen, 1788 Madison, 474-7214
What's in Millington?
It's a question many have asked, but few have dared to answer. Turns out, there's a navy base and a winery. There's a farmers market, an orchard, and a goat festival. And now, there's an authentic Filipino restaurant.
Yes, really. MANILA Filipino Restaurant is just off Navy Road, behind the Taco Bell. And if you can get past the irony of driving past ersatz tacos to reach authentic Filipino home cooking, it's well worth the trip.
MANILA was started by four energetic Filipina women — Ruby, Rannie, Charrie, and Aida — whose husbands were stationed at the navy base. They missed Filipino cooking, and they noticed that there was almost none to be had in Memphis. So on March 10th, they jumped into the breach.
"I've been cooking since age 7," says co-owner Ruby Guevara. "I would chop the tomatoes and peel the garlic. So it seemed like the natural thing to do."
What's fascinating about Filipino cuisine is the huge number of influences it displays. At various times, this small cluster of Pacific islands has traded with or been colonized by Malaysia, Spain, China, and America, and you can taste each of those countries in the cuisine.
Take the Lumpia ($5.99) — a crowd favorite at MANILA. These pastries have a crunchy crust like an egg roll, but they're stuffed with ground beef and vegetables like an empanada. At MANILA, they're served with a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce, but I say skip the sauce; they're tasty enough without. Also recommended: the Tapsilog ($6.99), a breakfast dish of salty marinated beef, fried egg, and rice.
"We're like IHOP," observes Guevara. "We serve breakfast all day."
Oh and hey, before I go, can I tell you about your new favorite dessert? It's called Halo-halo ($4.99). Overflowing with ice cream, frosted flakes, and Filipino rice crispies, it looks like a sundae — but you don't eat it like a sundae. Instead, you stir it up and eat it like breakfast cereal. I will close with a partial list of ingredients in this magnificent concoction:
Red beans. White beans. Sweet potato. Banana. Palm fruit. Coconut gel. Purple yams. Coconut strings. Vanilla ice cream. Frosted Flakes. Filipino rice crispies. Jackfruit. Leche flan. Tapioca pearls. Shaved ice. Milk. Sugar. Cherry.
MANILA Filipino Restaurant, 7849 Rockford, Millington, 209-8525