Restaurant News & Reviews

Top Dish: Ambo serves up bold flavors of Ethiopia

Name: Ambo Ethiopian Cuisine.

Location: Bellingham Public Market, 1530 Cornwall Ave. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Find more on its Facebook page. 360-927-8714.

Quick bite: For nine years, Mulu Belay dished up a taste of Ethiopian cuisine from her food stall at the Bellingham Farmers Market — surprising diners who had no idea that lentil stew was rave-worthy. Earlier in November, she moved to the Bellingham Public Market and fulfilled her dream of opening a restaurant. Her menu remains small, with two new lamb dishes rounding out the staples of lentil stew and chicken stew. With such bold flavors, the menu doesn’t need to be expansive to be impressive.

Prices range from $7.50 to $12, which includes one of four sides.

Three of us went for lunch one day after seeing a post on Ambo’s Facebook page about a traditional platter. It turned out to be two full orders of lentil stew as well as chicken stew, along with sides of potato and carrot stew, cabbage stew, kale, and cottage cheese made with buttermilk — all spooned over injera, the leavened flatbread with a sourdough flavor that is the cornerstone of Ethiopian cuisine. Belay makes hers with teff, rice and barley flour.

It might have been called the traditional platter, but I would describe it as a sampler platter or a good solution for the omnivore who can’t decide between a meat or vegetarian meal.

We tore off pieces of injera — it feels like a thin and springy pancake — and used it to scoop up the thick stew. The lentils were savory, dense and filling but not gummy. The slightly sour flavor and fat from the cottage cheese helped cool the spiciness of the lentils and offered a tasty complement.

But it was the chicken stew, made with thighs and drumsticks simmered in a deep red-brown sauce, that was my favorite. Made a day ahead of serving to allow the flavors to meld, the sauce for the stew includes paprika, chili power, onion and ajwain. (Belay roasts and grinds spices for her stews.)

The chicken was tender. But the sauce was the star with a slightly spicy and earthy flavor that warms your insides the way the best stews do. A bite that combines the deep flavors of the chicken stew with a little sour from the injera and a bit of sweetness from the carrot and potato stew will grab the attention of your taste buds.

At nearly $30, the platter offered a lot of food. We didn’t think we could eat it all. But we ate most of it, turning to forks when the stew had soaked through the injera.

Side note: Make sure to put a scoop or two of what Belay calls Ethiopian jalapenos on your plate. Made of finely diced jalapenos combined with other flavors such as garlic, cilantro and ginger, it’s a sort of spicy relish that will brighten a bite of food and please those who like more heat with their meals. It’s also addictive.

The story of ... Ambo is where Belay was born and raised in Ethiopia. The second of 12 children, she said she learned to cook starting at age 5 from her mother. She also credits her grandmother.

“I didn’t go to school for this,” she said.

She cooks now the way she learned then.

“Everything I do from scratch. I don’t make canned food,” Belay said. “I don’t measure. I just cook.”

Ambiance: Casual. The restaurant shares its seating with other eateries inside the Bellingham Public Market.