Fifteen years ago, when Ethiopian food was new and strange, all you had to choose from were little mom-and-pop places. But gradually Angelenos got hip to the idea of picking up a fragrant, spicy mouthful of raw beef or chicken wat in a limp swatch of crepe-like injera bread, and soon there were Ethiopian nightspots throbbing with reggae music as well as plangent, rattling melodies thrummed out on krars.
Now a cool, sophisticated nouvelle Ethiopian place has opened in Pasadena, just down the street from Twin Palms. Ibex has severe black-and-white flower photographs on the walls instead of travel and beer posters, and the soundtrack tends as much to jazz as to krar melodies. It serves rather subtle, upscale renditions of the classic dishes.
The food is not served in the usual Ethiopian fashion, on a platter covered with injera bread. Here you have a plate, and what you want to do with it is your business; injera and the various dishes come separately. But the faintly purplish-tan injera is as traditional as can be, made from the Ethiopian highland grain tef.
The most impressive dish is kitfo, a smooth puree of raw beef and clarified butter, aromatic with cardamom and ginger and punched up with just a bit more red pepper than you expect. It’s so rich it will give your doctor a heart attack, but the flavor is haunting.
The best-known Ethiopian stew is ye-doro wat, chicken cooked with much the same spices as kitfo and a lot of medium-hot red pepper. Ibex does a handsome version, mouth-filling and fragrant with spices and garlic. (Ibex makes it with skinless chicken and does not follow the colorful Ethiopian custom of including a hard-boiled egg in the stew. Your doctor can relax.) Kay wat is beef simmered in much the same sauce, but not as memorably.
When they’re not stewing meat in a wat, Ethiopian cooks make it into a saute called tibs. Once again, the best of the choices here is the chicken version, ye-doro tibs. This is the most delicately flavored Ethiopian dish I’ve ever had. The spices are very discreet, and with all the onions, garlic and butter, this tibs tastes practically French. Ibex is a little cautious in its use of spices, and usually I’d ask them to spice a dish up, but not with this dainty chicken.
Awaze tibs is chewy chunks of steak stewed in a thin, tart, slightly peppery sauce with a strong cardamom aroma. It’s a bit of a one-note dish on its own, but worth adding to the mix if you have a party of people sampling a number of things. Ye-beg tibs is chunks of lamb in a different and less distinctive sauce with a hint of rosemary. The one real snooze on this menu is tibs alicha, beef with bland stewed onions.
Ethiopia has a large repertoire of vegetarian dishes. Ye-misir wat is red lentils in a faintly hot, slightly sweet sauce--it tastes eerily like a certain style of ground beef chili. There’s a mixed vegetable curry called atkilt. Gomen is collards, slightly sweet, usually not overdone, with a hint of ginger.
Every entree comes with a choice of several side dishes. Timatim fitfit is something like a very garlicky pappa al pomodoro made with injera instead of Italian bread; a pleasant mush of bread and tomatoes. Aziffa is a slightly peppery mush of lentils, and kinche is bulgur wheat pilaf elegantly flavored with butter and cardamom. The most extraordinary side is buticha, a concoction of garbanzo flour, jalapen~os and green onions that looks like, and even tastes astonishingly like, scrambled eggs.
Some Ethiopian restaurants indulge the American taste for dessert, but here Ibex is rigorously classical. If you want something to end the meal with, go for the full-service traditional coffee ceremony (for two). They bring out a round-bottomed black clay coffee pot and set it on a little doughnut-shaped pillow. As they pour your coffee (in espresso cups), a lump of incense burns on a piece of charcoal. (They leave the box of incense so you can put on more if you like. Hint: The whitish lumps are frankincense, the yellowish ones are myrrh.)
The coffee itself is Ethiopian, of course. Ibex is thoroughly cool and sophisticated about such things.
Ibex Ethiopian Restaurant, 119 W. Green St., Pasadena. (818) 793-3822. Open Tue.-Fri.,11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., noon-10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $16-$23. Takeout. Beer and wine. Street parking. Visa, MasterCard and American Express. What to Get: Timatim fitfit, buticha, ye-doro tibs, kitfo, coffee ceremony (for two).