Adulis is the newest East African restaurant in Footscray, having just opened in May of this year. Eating out regularly in Footscray, we are so used to function rather than style, so the charming dining room and atmosphere came as a pleasant surprise. The tables were draped with white tablecloths (albeit with a nonna-style clear plastic tablecloth over the top) and set with wine glasses.
The walls were painted in a very sexy bronze metallic tone and hung thoughtfully with African-style art. Funky ethnobeat played on the stereo. The delightful owner served us with charm and totally un-self-conscious flair.
Sambusa, $2 and Green Chilly, $2
This sambusa, a local version of the more widely-known Indian samosa, was yummy, filled with spicy lamb with just the right amount of richness. The green chilli was simply a raw chilli, deseeded and split, and filled with a tomato and onion mixture made luscious through long marination in lemon and olive oil. It was surprisingly delicious, like a fresh, healthy nacho chip.
Beb 'Ainetu meat ($20) and veg ($15)
Ethiopian restaurants are a paradise for the indecisive - there's always a chef's selection that gives you the best of everything. A huge round platter was proudly presented to us, draped with kitcha or barley-based, pancake-like local bread. Starting from the 12 o'clock position we had doro kulwha (mild "yellow" chicken), doro wat (chicken curry), zigni (sauteed beef), alicha (which I know as tikil gomen, cabbage and carrots), yellow lentils, "spinach" and misir wat (spicy lentils).
Oh boy - where to start? This food was simply fabulous. The doro kulwha was an absolute revelation. Gingery, lemony and zingy, with the undertone of sweet caramelised onions and tender chicken. Its spicier cousin, the doro wat, was a rich, earthy, earthly delight of red berbere spice, tomato paste and onions, surrounding tender chicken and a hard-boiled egg. The zigni was similar to the doro wat but included small tender cubes of meat instead and was lusciously buttery.
Misir wat (red lentils) and spinach
Moving on to the vegies, the alicha was excellent - perfectly cooked cabbage, carrots and green beans in butter and turmeric. The yellow lentils were cooked with similar simple aromatics like ginger and turmeric and provided a contrast to the misir wat or spicy lentils which, like the doro wat, had been cooked with berbere. The "spinach" (which I think may have been kale?) was fantastic, a dry, perfectly cooked, just slightly pleasantly bitter delight with the tang of iron on your tongue.
Shoro (part of Beb 'Ainetu or chef's selection)
With a proud flourish, we were also presented with this intriguing pot of shoro (aka shiro) or chickpea-flour stew, served in a gorgeous shiny black pot complete with matching lid. Oh gods, this was just divine. I have had shiro before at Ethiopian restaurants and have never liked it, finding it to be a dry, crumbly pseudo-dal that is redeemed only by the green chillis spiked throughout. Adulis' shoro is absolutely nothing like that. It is rich and luscious, the chickpea flour smooth and thick, the undertones of onion and just a little tomato radiating throughout the whole pot. So - totally - divine !
We also received this little dish of traditional hot sauce. We had fun trying to unravel the many threads of flavour running through this little pot of red gold. It is hot but not overly so, but the overwhelming flavour is that of smokiness, almost like chipotle chilli. Yes, we did ask what was in it, but only got a shake of the head and a friendly wink - "Secret!"
As well as the barley-based, sturdier kitcha or pancake-bread upon which our meal was served, we received a basket of pillow-soft, tangy, wheat-based white injera. This traditional East African bread is made by fermenting a batter of various flours (giving a pleasant sour flavour, just like sourdough bread) and then pouring onto a large, flat pan so that one side is covered in millions of little craters that act as sponges for all the delicious flavours.
We ate until we were stuffed and then we ate some more. The food was that good. Everything belied a really careful hand. Sometimes Ethiopian dishes such as doro wat which involve slow-cooked onion can have a very slight bitter undertone if the onions were allowed to brown instead of caramelise - not so here. Again, at some restaurants everything can taste a bit "same-same", whereas here at Adulis every dish had its own individual, very distinct flavours. The ingredients were quality and had been treated with care - no grey hard-boiled egg yolk here. My only criticism is they have no Ethiopian beers.