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In an inconspicuous- looking storefronton Wisconsin Avenue, people are doing the unthinkable – eating without utensils. At what point in our lives do we become controlled by the fork and spoon? Burgers and pizza don’t count. I mean the messy beauty of mashed potatoes and spaghetti and meatballs. Maybe we’ve strayed too far from the […]

In an inconspicuous- looking storefronton Wisconsin Avenue, people are doing the unthinkable – eating without utensils.

At what point in our lives do we become controlled by the fork and spoon? Burgers and pizza don’t count. I mean the messy beauty of mashed potatoes and spaghetti and meatballs. Maybe we’ve strayed too far from the tactile experience of eating.

But that’s not a problem at Alem Ethiopian Village. The staff won’t begrudge you a conventional eating utensil if you really want it. But trust me, you don’t.

The Bekele family opened Alem a year ago this month. The seating is mostly at conventional tables, but chairs are also grouped around one or more mesobs – colorful woven tables. Servers bring the food on a large platter that rests on top of the mesob, or sits on the table. The platter is akin to a round, deep-dish pizza pan, the base of which is lined with injera, a wafer-thin pancake made from teff flour.

Each stew is spooned into a different spot on the pancake. Steamed collard greens, mashed lentils, chickpea “cookies” and chunks of lamb and beef. The vegetables are thick mashes. Some have the mild, lingering flavor of ginger and garlic. The deep-scarlet stews are seasoned with berberé, a blend of spices that includes red chile. The berberé packs some heat, but there’s a trick to eating the stews that minimizes their spiciness.

The injera serves more than one purpose. It’s the platform on which the stews are placed. It also comes on the side, rolled up like a poster and ready to be torn into pieces and used as an eating utensil of sorts. When it’s a scoop for the spicy stew, the spongy, vaguely sour-tasting pancake – the sour flavor comes from an initial fermentation process – tempers the sauce’s heat.

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Then there’s the drumstick issue. There are two chicken dishes, both featuring a drumstick draped in sauce. The spicy doro wot comes with a spicy red pepper sauce ($10.95). But you’re given a hard-boiled egg and a dusting of dry, homemade cottage cheese (ayib, they call it) to tone down the red pepper fire. Doro alitcha is the drumstick in a mild ginger-garlic sauce.

When the ginger-garlic sauce contains lamb, as it does in the yebeg alitcha, it’s subtle, with a fine texture ($10.25). You can have the lamb alone or with beef and chicken in a combination plate ($13-$17.75).

Knowledge is essential at Alem. That’s why the staff is so important. My server patiently brought samples of tej (honey wine) and an unusual-tasting dry Ethiopian red wine. At times like this, I almost forget I’m in Milwaukee.

Alem Ethiopian Village, 307 E. Wisconsin Ave., 414-224-5324. Hours: Mon-Wed 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Thurs-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun 4-9 p.m. Prices: appetizers $2-$3.50; entrées $7.50-$17.75. Service: friendly and helpful. Dress: You choose. Smoke-free. Handicap access: yes. Credit cards: M V D DS. Reservations: not necessary.

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