Thursday, September 27, 2007

Altus Ethiopian - Great food, fun dining experience

Altu's Ethiopian Cuisine, on Michigan Avenue, tucked in right next to the Silver Dollar Saloon (at the very border of Lansing and East Lansing, just west of Frandor).

Ethiopian food not only tastes great, is very filling, and provides great options for both meat eaters and vegetarians, but it is one of those unique dining experiences that makes the whole thing extra fun...because at the end of the meal you eat the napkins and table cloth! (Okay, that's because what looks like a rolled napkin and table cloth is really the spongey "injera" bread that is unique to Ethiopia. More on that in a minute.)

Ethiopian food consists mainly of various kinds of stews. There's a lot of ginger, onion, garlic, tumeric and lemon here. And there's a lot of hot pepper in the spicy dishes. The meats are all stewed with tomato and onions until the meat is tender and sauce has blended itself all together with the meat. Beef, Lamb, Chicken -- and you can get them all either spicy or mild. We usually get something spicy and something mild. While everything is good in spicy mode, lamb and chicken are the best mild choices. (Note, while the Chicken is really tasty, she uses drumsticks only, which means the proportion of meat is smaller. The "Breast Chicken Strips" may be a better deal, but I haven't tried them yet.)

The vegetarian entrees consist of various legumes -- lima beans, lentils, pinto beans, chickpeas -- cooked in variations of similar seasonings. (Though not tomatoes.) While a lot of people really like the spicey lentils, I think the Lima Beans are the star of the show here. They are mild, creamy, stewed in lemony ginger and tumeric. And they're the perfect complement to Spicey Beef (or Spicey Lentils if you are a vegetarian.)

On the side, you always get a small, sharp peppery salad, and a scoop of stewed cabbage with a little potato. You can also order collard greens (and on Wednesdays, there's a special greens with coconut dish).

All of this is served on a large platter with a sheet of injera -- a flat bread made from a tiny whole grain called tef. The batter is fermented, like sourdough, which is what gives it the spongey texture, and a sour/salty flavor. Injera is extremely healthy - one of the few whole grain products that taste really good. But if you prefer, you can also get dishes with a big plate of seasoned rice instead.

The restaurant has a number of regular booths, as well as small Ethiopian tangine tables -- stands you can gather around and dig in as a group. Ethiopian food is meant to be eaten by hand -- just tear off a piece of bread and scoop up the stew. But Altu provides forks too. (And for some people, this might be a good choice. All of the food has tumeric in it, a lovely yellow/orange spice that stains. Don't wear white silk unless you are a very neat eater.)

If you like iced tea, give her tea a try -- it's spiced and tasty. Otherwise, she has a selection of regular softdrinks. Prices are just under $10 for vegetarian dishes, and just over for meat dishes -- but you get a LOT of food. Closed Sundays and Mondays. She also has live worldbeat music on Saturday nights.

Check out the menu and music schedules at her website, Altu's Ethiopian Cuisine, 1312 Michigan Avenue, East Lansing, (517) 333-6295

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