For the better part of two decades, Tantalus and Medici House offered East Aurorans an eclectic mix of dishes from familiar cuisines, a chance to step away from the ordinary.
The new restaurant from Laurie Kutas and John Rooney isn’t a step away, it’s an international flight. Theas introduces the mysteries and satisfactions of Ethiopian cuisine to the Southtowns. What they’ve created is the classiest Ethiopian restaurant in Western New York.
Ethiopian cuisine is a latecomer to the Buffalo area. When Theas opened this year, its dense, complex stews, sautéed dishes and injera flatbread could be found at two small restaurants and a lunch counter operated by immigrant families. Theas’ owners wanted to offer the cuisine they had loved and cooked at home for years to the masses. So they split their existing restaurant, Medici House, in half, and made one side Theas.
Theas’ dining room is decorated in earth tones, adorned with African tapestries and art. Before ordering food, I selected a flight of beer ($9.50) with four 4-ounce glasses of interesting craft selections that ranged from a floral, hoppy beer to a smoked stout.
For appetizers, we ordered avocado salad ($9), kitfo, ground beef in spiced butter ($12), buticha, chickpea dip ($6), potato balls ($8) and chicken wings in berbere spices ($9.95).
For entrees, we asked for the vegetarian sampler platter ($28) and two classic stews, doro wot, chicken drumstick and hard-boiled egg ($12) and alitcha wot, beef chunks in mild sauce. Theas also offered rice bowls, stew over red rice. We asked for the mushroom ($12.50) and chicken ($14) versions.
Avocado salad was halved grape tomatoes, field mix greens, red onion and sliced avocado, a minimalist arrangement with a black sesame seed dressing. I was happy to eat fresh green things but wished there was more of it.
The berbere wings were outstanding, our favorite dish of the night. The intoxicatingly complex spice mixture – berbere usually includes cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, fenugreek and more – elevated the pedestrian chicken wing to a dish worth the drive.
By comparison, the chickpea dip, served with pita bread, left me flat. The menu said it included garlic and lemon, but I still yearned for a zesty hummus. Potato balls were two patties of collard greens and potato, well-browned and tender, served with three dipping sauces. Simple but satisfying, I would have eaten more.
Kitfo is an Ethiopian dish of fresh ground beef that’s been soaked in clarified butter and simmered with a spice mixture that starts with cardamom. Ethiopians eat it raw for the most part, the steak tartare of northwest Africa. Restaurants here tend to give you partly cooked (“lebleb”) versions unless you specify otherwise. That’s how Theas did it, serving the spiced meat with a side of fresh house-made cheese and rolls of injera, the Ethiopian sourdough pancake used as bread.
I’ve eaten four Ethiopians’ versions of kitfo in Buffalo, and enjoyed each one. The Theas version was overpowered by the spice mixture, so I could not taste the beef.
The vegetarian sampler platter arrived as six vegetable and legume dishes arrayed on a sheet of injera with green salad, fresh cheese and house-made hot sauce. It was beautiful and delicious, a deft exploration of the strong vegetarian emphasis in Ethiopian cuisine.
The dishes included beets simmered with lemons, red and yellow lentils, collard greens, caramelized onions and potatoes, and sautéed green beans. Each had their own blend of spices, from the mild, sweet beets to the intense lentil purees. We scooped up samples with folds of injera, and agreed the platter would make a fine vegetarian dinner for two.
The rice bowls, stews ladled over chewy red rice, were disappointing. The mushrooms tasted mainly of turmeric, and the meat in the chicken breast version was chewy.
By contrast, both the doro wot (chicken drumstick) and alitcha wot (mild beef) stews were excellent, offering velvety tender meat. Their spicing was complex and even intriguing, lingering pleasantly after the dish had been finished. They were as good as or better than any I’ve had, except the chicken stew was missing its hard-boiled egg.
For dessert, we ordered baklava, crème brûlée and chocolate cake ($7.50 each). The cake was average, the crème brûlée’s texture closer to soft-scrambled eggs than creamy custard. The baklava was terrific, a pielike wedge that was flaky, syrupy, nutty and dotted with more black-and-white sesame seeds.
I don’t consider myself an Ethiopian cuisine authority, but I have come to love the cuisine through many meals at Lucy’s, Gatur’s and Abyssinian Ethiopian at the West Side Bazaar. I would now add Theas, where you can enjoy resonant Ethiopian flavors in a nicer setting, with bustling service and a full bar.
If you already enjoy Ethiopian cuisine, or are even considering it, give Theas a try.
Theas - 7 plates
Veteran operators split restaurant, add Ethiopian to Southtowns choices.
WHERE: 634 Main St., East Aurora, 652-0390, www.theasrestaurant.com
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $5-$12; entrees, $12-28
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.