In the front room of an old house in Midtown, a lunchtime buffet holds a palette of brilliant colors--yellow cabbage, ruby beets, green salad and rust-hued beef. In this cozy space, decorated with travel posters and knickknacks, guests huddle at small, low tables. Seated knee-to-knee, they balance Styrofoam plates on laps and eat with plastic forks. A few diners dispense with the utensils altogether and dig in with their hands. The occasional scoop of sorbet or cup of steaming tea emerges from the kitchen, but for the most part, the focus is on the all-you-can-eat buffet, which offers a happy compromise for meat lovers and vegetarians, in this newest addition to Midtown’s dining landscape.
Oh, and, by the way, did we mention it’s Ethiopian food?
No, we didn’t mention it up front, because Bethel Ethiopian Cuisine brings more than its intriguing African heritage to the table. Housed in the former location of Ken’s Hibachi Express, the restaurant stands out for its comfortable ambiance and appealing menu, not to mention its well-priced value, which just might be more of a novelty than its international provenance.
The fact that Bethel delivers a top-quality product is little surprise, given that Seble Sebsebie is in charge. The former manager of Horn of Africa restaurant on Murfreesboro Pike, Sebsebie left the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa in 1988 and arrived in Nashville in 2004 after a layover in Washington, D.C. Sebsebie earned a loyal following at Horn, which she left last year to open her own business.
While Bethel may not be the first African restaurant in town, it is a trailblazer in its neighborhood, and its entry into Midtown illustrates the growing worldliness of Nashville’s appetite. While earlier Ethiopian eateries—Abay, Horn of Africa and Lalibela among them—have tended to cluster on the global dining corridors of Nolensville Road and Murfreesboro Pike, Bethel has planted a red-yellow-and-green flag within walking distance of all-American establishments such as Noshville, Broadway Brewhouse, Corner Pub and Losers, in the district where Vanderbilt and Music Row overlap.
Bethel is a compact restaurant, with seats for about 30 people inside and 40 more on the covered front patio. A large group could have some trouble configuring around the low tables. On the other hand, the environment is very casual, and on our trips, people were flexible in moving things around to accommodate our numbers.
There are three upstairs rooms available for private parties of 10 or more, and Bethel recently opened a second-floor hookah lounge, open to guests 18 and older.
On three trips, we ordered the lunch buffet every time. Priced at $7.50, it’s hard to turn down in favor of menu entrées, which generally cost more than the all-you-can-eat option. Throughout the week, the rotating buffet showcases almost all of Bethel’s offerings at one time or another and is a great way to explore Ethiopian cuisine.
On Tuesday, for example, the buffet offers awaze tibs, sautéed cubes of beef with onion, tomato and jalapeño pepper, rich with the smoky flavor of berbere spice. Or you can always order an entrée of awaze tibs—either lamb or beef—which comes with a side of cabbage and homemade cottage cheese known as aybe.
On Monday and Friday, there’s key wot, a spicy stew of cubed beef flavored with red chili and cardamom. The spice added a smoky heat, not to mention an almost purple hue, to the moist stew, which was reminiscent of barbecue. Doro wot, stewed chicken in red-pepper sauce, is available on Saturday and Sunday, when Sebsebie expands the buffet to offer more items and raises the price to $10.50.
Kitfo is not available on the buffet, but can be ordered as an entrée. The raw beef, ground with peppery mit mita and cardamom, requires refrigeration, so it’s not a good candidate for a steam table.
Minchet abish, finely ground beef in spicy berbere sauce, not unlike Sloppy Joe filling, is available on Thursday, with a mild version flavored with ginger and garlic available on Tuesday and Friday. Labeled simply “mild beef” on the buffet, the mild version had an unappetizing appearance—grainy and beige like oatmeal—and little if any spice.
In addition to the meats, there is a selection of about six vegetables every day. Wednesday is vegetarian day, with 14 varieties of lentils, cabbage, peas, cracked bulgur wheat, collard greens, beet salad and green salad.
It is the bountiful, colorful combination of the many vegetables, all prepared fresh, with the rich spices of the meat dishes that makes the buffet so enticing. The standout of everything we tried—meat or vegetable—was the spicy red lentils, which were much hotter than we expected to find on a buffet, where all too often the intensity of spices is dumbed down for a broader audience. Mild green lentils had a pearly texture, preferable to the yellow split peas, which were mushier and almost sweet. Stewed cabbage was pretty—a cheery, warm yellow—but leaned toward mushy and had little flavor. More substantial were the collard greens, or gomen, with garlic and ginger, which were available with or without meat.
Over several visits we developed a pattern: On the first trip, load up on some of everything, including the fresh injera—sour, fluffy crepe-like flatbread, made from ground teff, which works as an absorbent scoop for the rich stews. Trip two, get seconds of our favorites, including awaze tibs, red lentils and key wot. Trip three, under the guise of healthy eating (fiber and all that), load up a plate of salad, including the chopped medley of beets, tomatoes, peas, beans and carrots, all of which takes on the red stain of the beets. The salad of chopped romaine and tomatoes, dressed with soy oil, garlic, herbs and fresh lime juice, was a perfect palate cleanser after a meal of deep flavors and spices.
If you time things right, you can wrap up your meal with a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. On the weekend, Sebsebie roasts and grinds coffee, which she serves to guests at lunch for no extra charge.
We left every meal having eaten ample servings with interesting variety, but even after three earth-choking Styrofoam plates (health code requires a new plate on each trip to the buffet), we were never uncomfortable. As we walked out the door, through the peculiar clear-plastic geodesic dome covering the front patio, we did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation to figure out the economics of the enterprise. At $7.50 a head at lunch, it’s hard to see how the math adds up. Almost certainly, Sebsebie must be counting on developing a dinner crowd who will pay for the more expensive entrées as well as beer and wine. If that's her goal, there's surely no better strategy than getting folks hooked at lunch.
Bethel Ethiopian Cuisine is open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. The lunch buffet is available 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
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