Spice of life
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.