Monday, February 25, 2013

Gojo Ethiopian Cafe and Restaurant - A Taste of Africa off Nolensville Pike

My friend John is, among many other things, a chef. He's been cooking -- and exploring international food -- since he was a wee lad in East Tennessee. He's worked at world-class restaurants in New Orleans, New Zealand, and Nashville. So, you might say he knows a bit about food, and it shouldn't surprise you that one of our primary activities together is restaurant crawling.

On Friday we had a date to go "somewhere ethnic" in my part of town. The Nolensville Pike area is Nashville's epicenter for international culture, and the list of food choices is nearly endless. This embarrassment of riches is explored periodically on the Bites Blog of the Nashville Scene's web site -- Sean Maloney writes an occasional series tagged "The Road" that visits various eateries on this international corridor. John and I had long talked about exploring some of these mom-and-pop restaurants, groceries, and delis; Friday was our first joint foray. After a little discussion we decided on a spot and headed out. Along the way, though, he asked if I'd ever been to Gojo, the Ethiopian restaurant just off Nolensville on Thompson Lane. I hadn't, but had wanted to go for a long time. He had been, and liked it, and I was game. So we made a snap decision to change course and visit together.

I'd read about Gojo and Ethiopian cuisine; I had a general idea of what to expect. I wanted my first visit to be with someone who was more familiar with the drill, though, so I was glad to be with my culinary guru. Many of the dishes are served on a very large piece of enjera (sometimes spelled injera) -- that's the Ethiopian version of bread. It's made with yeast, but it's really more of a thin pancake than what we think of as bread. It would qualify as a flatbread, but it is more flexible than something like a pita or European flatbread. It's a uniform taupe color, completely smooth on one side and porous on the other. We asked one of the servers what it was made of -- it obviously was not just wheat. She said it has some wheat in it, as well as barley, but it's primarily tef. Tef, like quinoa, is one of the ancient grains, high in protein and very nutritious. Before being made into enjera, the tef is fermented, giving it a tang similar to sourdough. The enjera has a unique texture and flavor and was a lot of fun to eat.

Before we got to the main courses with enjera, though, we had an appetizer. At the server's recommendation we chose the Ayib Begomen. This was a finely crumbled fresh cheese, mixed with flecks of collard greens, chili, and other spices, with a little butter to hold it together. This mixture was piled high on small rounds of toasted bread. I was amazed at how flavorful it was. There was so much going on -- the salty tangy creaminess of the cheese and butter, the slight heat from the chili, plus flavors I couldn't identify. This appetizer was a signal that the meal was going to be an unusual, and tasty, experience.

John and I often order together and eat together, family style. We like sampling a wide variety of what the restaurant has to offer. So, with that in mind, we each got sampler plates for the main course. I chose the Vegetarian Combination, which consisted of samples of five vegetarian entrees. John chose the Meat and Vegetable combination, which had two vegetarian entrees and two meat entrees. When they arrived, we arranged the platters side by side in the middle of the table and dug in.

Each platter had one of the large enjera rounds as a base, and then mounds of the various dishes arranged on top. A basket of rolled 1/2 rounds of enjera is served on the side. There are no eating utensils -- as the server explained, you serve yourself by tearing off a chunk of enjera (with your right hand! culturally very important), and using that to scoop up a bite of the dish.

As John noted, the Holy Trinity of Ethiopian cuisine seems to be onion, ginger, and garlic -- nearly all the dishes featured these flavors. Some dishes had a little chili heat, some had other flavorings as well (often listed on the menu as "spices" or "house sauces"). Each dish was distinct, though, with a variety of tastes and textures.

The vegetarian platter had Miser W'et (lentils with some chili), Kik Aletcha (yellow split peas and turmeric), Shiro W'et (ground chickpeas with tomatoes, I think), Ye'atkilt W'et (green beans and carrots), Tikle Gomen (sauteed chopped cabbage). The meat and vegetable platter had the cabbage and the chickpeas, if I remember correctly, plus the meat dishes that John selected -- Yebeg T'ibs (lamb stew with rosemary, which included a chunk of cracked bone) and Doro W'et (chicken leg and hard-boiled egg covered in a thick spicy sauce).

I'm not a huge fan of lamb but I enjoyed the Yebeg T'ibs. The bit of enjera under the stew, which had absorbed the sauce and meat juices, was especially tasty. The Doro W'et reminded me of some Moroccan food I've had, while John said the flavor profile seemed similar to Oaxacan food. Either way it had a depth and warmth that was wonderful. I loved all of the vegetable dishes as well, and I liked the variety in the sampler. The green beans and cabbage dishes were a nice textural counterpoint to the thick pastes of the legume dishes.

It's difficult to describe all of the flavors of these dishes. Many included herbs and spices I've not had before,  plus I don't have a very fine palate. I can say, though, that I enjoyed everything I ate, and I enjoyed the opportunity to experience a cuisine so different from what I've had before. Now that I've been initiated, I'll happily return to Gojo.

stock photo of enjera platter


Kira said...

I am a fan of Gojo, though I haven't been there in a while. Their lunch buffet is also worth a visit. Those split peas with turmeric are my favorite! Glad you enjoyed your visit.

TLF said...

John said he'd enjoyed lunch there, too, so I'll definitely be giving that a try!