Spice of life

Pasatiempo - - RESTAURANT REVIEW - Molly Boyle I The New Mex­i­can

Ruth Reichl once said that what a suc­cess­ful restau­ra­teur re­ally needs is to get the cus­tomer on her side as quickly as pos­si­ble. “You want them to want you to suc­ceed,” added the former editor of Gourmet, and judg­ing from the buzz sur­round­ing its mid-Au­gust open­ing, Café Roha, the Ethiopian spot in the DeVar­gas Cen­ter, seemed to be shoring up this cru­cial sup­port.

On a re­cent visit, the woman in front of me at the counter was gush­ing about the café’s lat­est lo­cal write-up, con­grat­u­lat­ing them (and her­self, too, it seemed) for their good press. In­deed, Santa Fe’s fi­nally be­ing able to boast Ethiopian cui­sine is a feather in our culi­nary cap, and in this health­con­scious, mul­ti­cul­tural city, an eth­nic menu with lots of vegetarian op­tions guar­an­tees in­ter­est.

But there’s an­other, more es­sen­tial key to a restau­rant’s suc­cess: con­sis­tency. My first at­tempt to eat at Café Roha was thwarted by an early clo­sure due to “oven ser­vice.” On one visit, the full-page menus lay flat on the front counter. On a re­turn trip, they had been neatly folded in half, so that the menu was blank in­side, which ne­ces­si­tated flat­ten­ing it (as it had been the first time) to read it. The woman at the counter ex­plained that a cus­tomer had sug­gested this was a bet­ter for­mat. It wasn’t, and this mi­nor de­tail seemed at once both promis­ing and omi­nous: Yes, Café Roha lis­tens to its cus­tomers’ sug­ges­tions — in­clud­ing the wrong ones.

This un­pre­dictabil­ity ex­tends to the food. The Roha Clas­si­cal Plat­ter in­cludes sam­ples of clas­sic Ethiopian dishes, in­clud­ing doro wot (a slow-cooked chicken stew), sega wot (braised beef stew), and atak­ilt alicha (a ve­gan com­bi­na­tion of cab­bage, car­rots, and pota­toes). Most dishes are served with a side of in­jera, a spongy, sour flat­bread tra­di­tion­ally used to sop up stews. The clear high­light of this plat­ter was the beef, which con­ducted its fla­vors through com­plex spices: gar­lic, gin­ger, car­damom, and a blend called ber­bere. The meat was fall-apart ten­der and com­fort­ingly ro­bust. The rest of the plate was un­re­mark­able; the doro wot was cu­ri­ously bland, its chicken gray and stringy, and the atak­ilt alicha also lacked fla­vor.

At Café Roha, you or­der and pay at the counter and then sit, either in the small restau­rant area or out in the mall, and wait for your food. I tried the Ethiopian cof­fee, from Ohori’s, which con­tained none of the winey, flo­ral, berry­tinged acid­ity usu­ally found in Ethiopian blends; its notes were more mocha and overex­tracted. The gin­ger lemon­ade was overly sweet and not spicy.

The Roha burger is ad­ver­tised as sea­soned with a car­damom, co­rian­der, and awaze blend. What my com­pan­ion got was a dry, hum­drum puck cov­ered in a greasy square of not-melted cheese in an over­whelm­ingly doughy, pro­cessed bun. Rather than the ro­maine, tomato, and onion that were sup­posed to ac­com­pany the burger, the plate con­tained a be­wil­der­ing un­dressed pile of diced toma­toes, cu­cum­bers, and shred­ded let­tuce.

On the coun­ter­per­son’s rec­om­men­da­tion, we or­dered the warm doro tibs salad, which in­cluded a chicken breast with awaze, served on ro­maine with a yo­gurt-gar­banzo dress­ing. Again, what we re­ceived was in­con­sis­tent with the menu: an overly sauced, un­sliced breast over a small pile of ice­berg let­tuce and veg­eta­bles that had been dressed with some­thing tast­ing ex­actly like Wish-Bone Ital­ian dress­ing. We glanced at the next ta­ble, which had or­dered a Roha burger: That cus­tomer’s bun looked com­pletely dif­fer­ent from (and bet­ter than) ours had been. My vegetarian plat­ter proved a bit stronger, with the stand­out misir wot, a red-lentil dish that re­called some of the hearti­ness and strong spic­ing of the sega wot.

At dessert, things got con­fus­ing again. Af­ter we re­minded her of what we had or­dered, the server brought out a melted mass of car­damom and date gelato, apol­o­giz­ing pro­fusely for their “freezer prob­lem” and of­fer­ing an al­ter­na­tive. It was on the ta­ble al­ready, so we tried it. The gelato tasted OK in liq­uid form, but it was smoth­ered with cin­na­mon and canned whipped cream. We won­dered why she had brought it to us in the first place.

On the way out, we won­dered many more things: Based on the lo­ca­tion’s his­tor­i­cal in­abil­ity to re­tain a busi­ness for very long, is this spot in our slightly dreary “sad mall” cursed? Are the own­ers try­ing to do too much, or are th­ese just hic­cups en­demic to a new restau­rant? Pasatiempo’s pol­icy is to wait at least a month be­fore re­view­ing a restau­rant pre­cisely so that the own­ers can iron out such kinks (Roha’s been open for two months); per­haps this place needs just a lit­tle more time than that. I want Café Roha to suc­ceed, but it’s clear that more press­ing fac­tors like con­sis­tency and at­ten­tion to de­tail will go a long way to­ward se­cur­ing its longevity.

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