If there is such a thing as culinary stalking, then Mizrak Assefa has certainly been on the "stalkee" end of it.
Twenty years ago, Assefa and her husband, Bekele Alemu, opened Addis Red Sea , an Ethiopian restaurant in the South End. Soon, they were mobbed with diners who came for both the savory stews and tasty stir-fry bites as well as the plush, exotic décor.
But as weekend waits stretched more than an hour, fans begged the pair to open another branch. And they kept asking and hinting and cajoling for two decades until Assefa and Alemu finally gave in.
Now, at last, Addis Red Sea has a new location in Cambridge's Porter Square, in the former Indian Club space. The moment they posted their plans in the window, the calls started coming in as to when they would open.
So, with a soon-to-be-expanded menu and a half-finished décor, they opened last month, and lines have been spilling out the door.
Dramatic red, floor-to-ceiling curtains make the street seem a continent away as you walk inside. For now, it's a mish mash décor where chandeliers cast their glow on a giant straw umbrella shading the bar, and white linen-decked tables sit under Ethiopian scenes painted on animal hides.
Soon, though, most of the tables will give way to traditional, round, straw tables called mesobs.
As we sipped tropical juices ($3.25), our gracious waitress presented us with warm towels so we could cleanse our hands. Then, a large communal platter lined with spongy, crepe-thin injera flatbread arrived and our server carefully spooned little mounds of our entrees onto it.
What comes next is one of the finest ways to break bread with friends. You leisurely tear small squares of injera and use the bread to pinch bite-size servings of your meal (no forks here) until you get to the best part: scooping up and devouring the sauce-soaked injera that served as your plate.
Though the spicing at Addis was less bold than we hoped for, there was plenty to like nonetheless. An appetizer of ayib begomen ($5.95) laced the creamiest cottage cheese with a drizzle of "nit'r qibe," a luscious clarified butter spiced with ginger, garlic, cardamom, and clove. Both the timatim green salad ($5.95) and ye-miser ($6.95) warm lentil salad hopped with the bright flavors of lemon, red onion, and just enough hot pepper to tickle the tongue.
Vegans and vegetarians have plenty of options here. Ethiopia's Copts observe 208 animal-product-free fast days, so vegan cooking has grown into an art form. Fresh lemon and crunchy green pepper gave a delightful bounce to Butecha chickpea spread ($7.95). Addictive cayenne and garlic-spiked berbere , Ethiopia's version of curry, infused a savory lentil spread called yesmir wot. And the tender gomen wot collard greens simmered in herbed oil belong on every order.
On the meat side, dishes are either cayenne-spiked red stews called wots or hot-pepper-free green stews called alchas . But the wots would barely warrant one star for heat on a Thai menu, so don't miss the fabulous doro wot ($11.95). This aromatic chicken "curry" simmers for hours until what must be half the spice cabinet has soaked into the tender meat.
Unfortunately, both our beef entrees were tough and sinewy. We also missed the usual sourdough-like tang of the injera bread, which is traditionally fermented. Later, we discovered that although the house serves a lighter, nonfermented wheat-based injera bread as its standard, the traditional injera made from a grain called "tef" that we were hoping for is served on request.
No flaws could be found, however, in either the doro alcha chicken and yegeb alcha lamb, which were melt-in-your-mouth tender in their mild, buttery, gingery stews.
To finish, there are no sweets, and don't try begging Assefa to add any. It's either the traditional coffee and spicy kifto (steak tartar, $10.95) or nothing at all. Really. She means it.