In a city known for the variety of its cuisine, it is surprising how the middle range of not-pizza-but-not-Union-League options can seem repetitive. Serving standard dishes whose flavors are only slightly easier to differentiate than their names, many of the mid-range restaurants surrounding Yale’s campus satisfy without ever really exciting us. Caffé Adulis offers what other menus do not: originality, and better still, Eritrean cuisine.
If Caffé Adulis draws attention for what it is not, the food keeps diners coming back for what it is. The traditional Eritrean dishes are an acquired taste so delicious that subsequent cravings and return visits soon make it familiar. It’s an inviting place. The wooden tables by the first-floor bar are great for weeknight casual dining, while the second floor adds white linen and candles to create a more romantic atmosphere.
Eritrean cuisine is based on savory stews, tsebhes, served with doughy crepes, injera. Dishes are infused with a blend of spices from chili peppers to coriander and ginger — a mixture called berbere, which Adulis waitresses simplify as a “red pepper taste.” The injera is made from teff, an East African variety of millet, and seems to come with every item on the menu. Food is served on top of injera, rolled up and eaten in pockets of injera and finally sopped up to the last morsel with a little piece of injera. Caffé Adulis elaborates on the theme with a trio of white, red and orange varieties, but the effect is primarily visual. The beet or carrot-colored versions stay close to the sourdough tang of the original.
In addition to classic Eritrean flavors, Caffé Adulis cites a fusion of Mediterranean and North African influence. Their appetizers include chef’s novelties such as nachos topped with lentil-inspired salsa and tomato-stuffed jalapenos listed as “Master T’s Favorite.” Perhaps the most popular starter, and justifiably so, is the “Adulis Appetizer” — a plate of seared shrimp immersed in an addictive cream sauce of parmesan, tomato, shredded cabbage and scallions. It could easily double as an entrée. For a lighter beginning, try the cinnamon-sautéed West African Plantains, which for $5 seem an almost necessary addition to every meal.
The main dishes are all served family style, which makes it easy and fun to share whatever you order. Multiple dishes are often placed on the same platter, so vegetarians should specify if they prefer to have their food on a separate plate from any meat. But vegetarians will have many options here — if you can’t decide between the list of curried vegetables and lentil stews, the Vegetarian Extravaganza is a sampler of four. Although the line-up of the dishes’ names — Alitcha, Birsen, Tsebhe Hamlin Dinishn and Timtmo — would seem to promise a kaleidescope of flavor, the difference between the lentil puree and whole vegetables is primarily one of texture. Nuance disappears as you customize your meal with a spoonful of each to fill your injera.
People unsure of their taste-buds preferences will be charmed by the Caffé Adulis waitresses who are patient in their descriptions of any menu item that seems unfamiliar. Listen carefully when they list the specials: Tuesday featured a pumpkin seed-encrusted sea bass, served over pesto couscous. The fish was fresh, and the combined flavors were light and delicate. By comparison, the coconut cream sauce on the Shrimp Barka was overly sweet. Chicken or lamb stews, of course, are the restaurant’s classic specialty.
The dessert menu is not enlightened, but it’s unlikely you will want, or even be able to eat more after indulging in the rich main courses. The best choice is probably the pistachio gelato, accompanied by — if you can bear it — the warm chocolate soufflé.
Eritrean cuisine might not be the default on a student’s list of obvious favorites, but if you want to escape the old standbys, this is the place. You won’t find that endearing mix of ethnic artifacts and Yale-spirited paraphernalia on the walls, just straight-up good service and really good food.