WITH GREAT SADNESS, I must report that the Red Sea has departed.
This lovely little restaurant in Ypsilanti, Mich., struggled from the start. Located in a strip mall, several miles from the region’s cultural center of the University of Michigan, it faced formidable competition from Blue Nile, the pioneering restaurant that brought Ethiopian food to Ann Arbor in 1989 (after opening a Blue Nile in Detroit six years earlier). Located near campus, Blue Nile continues to thrive: The restaurant expanded a few years ago and began to serve lunch, and it makes its own brand name t’ej, which is available at restaurants around the country.
When Red Sea opened, its owner was Eritrean (hence the name). He sold the place in 2007 to Dereje Retta, an engineer raised in Ethiopia, and his wife, Roza Tesfaye. They tried to keep the small place going, but it didn’t work: In January 2011, Red Sea went under.
I had some wonderful meals there, and I write more about the restaurant in my book Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A. One day a few years ago, as I was enjoying lunch at Red Sea, in walked Tony Norman, a columnist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, my hometown newspaper. We did a double take, of course – imagine seeing a friend from home, 300 miles away, in a particular restaurant on a particular afternoon. Then I remembered that Tony was in town for a term doing some work at the University of Michigan.
Despite the loss of Red Sea, the Ann Arbor community can still get excellent Ethiopian food at Blue Nile, even though the restaurant has always made its injera with white flour and no teff, and without fermenting the batter. The owners began this practice back in the 1980s, when teff was hard to find, and when few people knew about Ethiopian food anyway. Now it’s a local (although not Ethiopian) tradition.
My trip to Ann Arbor and Detroit this month included a dash across the border to Windsor, Ontario, which has three Ethiopian restaurants within about a mile and a half of each other, and even a market where you can buy injera and spices. I visited them all, and here’s a report:
♦ World Marathon, 60 University Ave. West. This is the first one you’ll find after crossing the border from Detroit. The food is very good – I had lunch there – and for $15, they’ll perform a full coffee ceremony. Many paintings and tapestries decorate the walls, and there are a few big mesobs for Ethiopian-style dining. World Marathon has the largest menu of the city’s three Ethiopian restaurants. It’s redolent with incense, and there’s a bar, but no Ethiopian beer, and of course, no t’ej, which you can’t find at Ethiopian restaurants in Canada.
♦ Addis Ababa, 326 Wyandotte St. West. Smaller and homier than, World Marathon, this restaurant offers catering services as well as lunch and dinner. It has a good solid selection of menu items, from a beyaynetu and doro wat to kitfo and even quanta firfir (Ethiopian beef jerky, mixed with injera).
♦ East African and Asian Restaurant, 1806 Wyandotte St. West. This very homey little restaurant serves goat, which is rare at Ethiopian restaurants, but which you’ll find at Moslem-owned Somali restaurants. In fact, the owners are Moslem, and their business card has some Arabic written on it. You can smell the meat cooking when you enter the place, and all of the Ethiopian-style dishes come served on injera with vegetable sides. The menu has no outright Asian dishes: There’s “spicy rice” with your choice of meat (goat, lamb, chicken or beef), and you can get any meat as a platter with rice and chutney on the side. It’s a small, bare-bones place, but it’s been in business since 2004 – a good sign in the volatile restaurant business – and it’s the only one of the city’s three Ethiopian restaurants that has its own website. [N.B. I received a note in January 2014 telling me that this restaurant has closed.]
♦ C & J Mart, 302 Wyandotte St. East: This is a full-service convenience store owned by an Ethiopian man who provides for his community: He sells injera on a shelf by the register, and in a back corner, you’ll find several shelves with berbere, teff, gesho, shiro, kolo, shawls, scarves and dresses.
That’s the Windsor Ethiopian restaurant scene. It’s not like Toronto, but it’s almost equal to what you’ll find across the border in the much bigger city of Detroit, which only has four Ethiopian restaurants: the original Blue Nile in suburban Ferndale, Addis Ababa in suburban Plymouth, and two branches of Taste of Ethiopia. The latter two ferment their injera, just as it should be.
University of Pittsburgh