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Finger Food 

Move over, chicken wings. Charlotte has another spicy, inexpensive spot for food eaten by hand: an Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurant called Red Sea Restaurant and Bar. Anyone who has lived in Washington, DC is familiar with the abundance of Ethiopian restaurants there. In fact, Washingtonians claim their city has more Ethiopian restaurants than anywhere except Ethiopia. Frequenting those restaurants was one of my favorite pastimes when I lived in DC and, for many years (see article December 18, 1996), I've wished for an Ethiopian restaurant in Charlotte. That wish was granted when Red Sea Restaurant and Bar opened a couple of months ago in the shopping center on the corner of Elizabeth Avenue and Independence Boulevard. Many Ethiopian restaurants are just storefront shops with little in the way of ambiance. Red Sea is no exception. The small space only seats 33 and on both the side walls are photographic murals not of the Red Sea, but of tropical scenes in the Caribbean. Vases of plastic flowers dot the tables while overhead is a notable sound system. "We have live music on Saturday nights," says owner Tecle Gebremussie. Gebremussie is from Eritrea, a coastal nation in northeastern Africa, on the Red Sea. Indeed, the country's name is from the Roman name for the Red Sea, Mare Erythraeum. Italy named the country Eritrea when they established a colony in 1890 during the African land grab by the Europeans after the British opened the Suez Canal. Politically, Eritrea has been part of Ethiopia throughout much of the past thousand years or so, but gained its independence from Ethiopia after a 30-year war ended in 1993. Eritrean cuisine, however, remains very similar to Ethiopian with only some name differences and additional seafood items. The Italian influence is still apparent with a number of pasta dishes offered on a typical Eritrean menu. At Red Sea, the menu is divided into two parts. On the left are 10 Eritrean and Ethiopian dishes. Beef, lamb, chicken, and vegetable stews dominate the list. The other side of the menu contains spaghetti and some American dishes. Throughout the menu are small spell check problems: "row" instead of "raw," "chapped" rather than "chopped." But don't let that deter you. If you have questions, Gebremussie is there to guide you. In the kitchen Gebremussie has two experienced cooks from Ethiopia. Some of the ingredients of this cuisine are not typically found in Charlotte. Kibe is a clarified butter that resembles ghee. Berbere is a red pepper paste used as a base in many of the stews. Its composition differs from cook to cook, much like Indian curry or American chili powder, but it's a fiery blend of chile peppers, shallots, and as many as 15 spices, which may include cumin, cloves, cardamom, allspice, fenugreek, ginger, turmeric, salt, coriander, cayenne, cinnamon, nutmeg, and black pepper. Perhaps the most well known Ethiopian food is injera, a spongy flat bread with an enticing sourdough flavor. At the Red Sea, the cooks use teff to make their bread. Teff is finely milled millet flour which gives injera its characteristic grayish cast. Many Ethiopian restaurants in this country opt for wheat flour instead. High marks go to Red Sea for being authentic. Appetizers are rare in Ethiopian restaurants and Red Sea is no exception. Neither did they offer the ubiquitous tomato fitfit, a salsa with green chilies. Nor was there sambusa, a savory filled Eritrean treat similar to an Indian samosa. But, as is typical of Ethiopian restaurants, there were no forks nor knives since this is "tear and scoop" communal food. The orders are produced quickly from the kitchen. First up were quarter folded injera. This was immediately followed by a large enamel tray covered edge to edge by one large piece of injera and three mounds of vegetable dishes. The best of these was the hamly or chopped collard greens, followed by the timtimo (lentils in a fiery sauce) and alitcha (cabbage, potatoes, and onions with a curry blend). Stews were brought out and spooned symmetrically on top of the injera in separate groupings for each diner. The idea is to share. Any chili lover would enjoy the zegenie ($6.99), which is described on the menu as a beef stew but is much more like Western style chili with ghee. Though ordered with medium heat, what arrived seemed much hotter. Despite the heat, the dish still delivered multidimensional taste and the heat soon dissipated with a few bites of injera. Ethiopian is not meant to be a lip-searing cuisine. The chicken legs in the tsebhi derho (the Eritrean name for doro wat, $6.99) were unusually, and surprisingly, tender and the velvety heated sauce had permeated the hard boiled eggs. The lamb was tough, yet typically so, in the ye begs tebsi ($8.99). Tebsi also comes in beef, chicken, or fish ($6.99). After all the extra injera was used, the injera which lined the tray was perhaps the tastiest since it had soaked up the flavors of the stews. Red Sea offers a variety of domestic and imported beers, but they also have Addis, an Ethiopian-style golden, thin-bodied beer (tella) bottled in New Jersey. This beer, although advertised on the wall, is not listed on the menu. Ethiopian honey wine is offered by the glass or bottle ($4 a glass, $15 a bottle) but isn't listed on the menu either. Before coming to Charlotte, Gebremussie owned a successful restaurant in Addis Ababa for a number of years. Currently, he is in the process of expanding his menu and has been happily surprised by Charlotte's interest in his food. The latest wave of Ethiopia restaurants in the US has been more upscale than what you will find at Red Sea. Those restaurants are extravagantly decorated with wicker tables and servers who provide equipment for special hand washing rituals. Those kitchens, sensitive to the current American aversion to butter, have toned down the use of that product -- but these restaurants are also much more expensive. What is offered at the Red Sea are simple stews, plain, but good, with dinner entrees costing under $10. It would be hard not to like any place with those kinds of prices. Red Sea Restaurant and Bar 206 East Independence Boulevard. Hours are 11am until midnight Monday through Friday; Saturday noon until midnight; Sunday noon until 10pm. Music on Saturday nights until 2am. AmEx, MC, Visa, Discover. 704-375-4999.

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