Hours: Sunday through Thursday, noon to 2 a.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon to 3 a.m.
Atmosphere: Mildly exotic.
Price range: $3.50 to $7.20; most entrees between $4.45 and $5.
Credit cards: All major credit cards.
Special facilities: Accessible to the physically handicapped.
"Do you know how to do it?" asked our waitress.
We were two families strong, huddled around two tables at the Red Sea. Before us were scoops, piles and mounds of the vegetables, meats, and grains we'd ordered.
Some were in bowls; others were laid out on what appeared to be a stretchy piece of rubber that covered a round platter the size of a large pizza. The rubber was, in fact, injera, the unique, flat, slightly sour Ethiopian bread that is served with and under the Ethiopian dishes cooked in the kitchens of the Red Sea.
What we didn't know was how to go about eating the food before us. With the utmost courtesy and special attention to the five children in our group, our waitress initiated us into the rites of eating Ethiopian food.
First you discover that the napkin your waitress gave you when she brought in your food is not a napkin but your personal stock of injera. You tear off a piece and use it to scoop up the food, which, if you're doing things the best possible way, has all been ladled out onto the main platter.
After you've made your way through the varied and delicate tastes and finished off the last drop of kik alecha (pureed yellow split peas cooked with green peppers, spiced butter, onions and herbs) and zilzil tibs (beef strips broiled with peppers, onions and spices), it's every man, woman and child for himself in dividing up the injera that was on the bottom of it all.
It is not always easy to take children to a restaurant where unfamiliar foods are served. Red Sea does not offer anything even vaguely familiar to most Americans: there are no hamburgers, slices of pizza or even a cheese sandwich for the unadventurous.
But the waitresses, who are courteous and unfailingly kind, are more than willing to explain the dishes, make suggestions and steer the uninitiated away from the hotter spices. And the fun of forgoing silverware and using nothing but injera and your fingers to eat makes the unusual a little easier to handle.
The Red Sea is a modest, two story restaurant in the heart of Adams Morgan. The dining room on the main floor is dark and faintly exotic. There are deep red tablecloths and woven hangings in bright, rich colors. Upstairs, the dining room is brightly lit and less romantic. Most of the small tables seat four.
As the menu and our waitress explained, not all Ethiopian dishes are hot and spicy. "Berbere" is the hot pepper seasoning made, the menu said, from 14 herbs and spices. Berbere is the base for all dishes that have "wat" in the name: these dishes are hot. Almost all the entrees came in wat and non-wat versions.
For instance, yebeg wat ($4.80) is lamb in berbere sauce with onions, herbs and spiced butter. Yebeg alecha ($4.80) is lamb stewed with herbs, onions and green peppers.
All entrees come with two vegetable side dishes, all of which are explained in detail on the menu and none of which is as familiar as green peas or carrots. Gomen, for instance, is chopped spiced greens (usually kale) cooked with onions and peppers; kinge is wheat cooked with butter and spices; yemisir azefah, my favorite, is green lentils pureed with herbs and spices. Since we were a party of nine, our waitress brought each of us a small sample of the four vegetable dishes. All were superb.
As to our main courses, we particularly liked yebeg wat, the hot lamb dish; zilzil tibs ($5.25), beef strips broiled with peppers, onions and spices; and yatakelt kilikil ($3.85), fresh vegetables cooked with garlic, peppers, onions and ginger root. We didn't like doro alecha ($4.45) nearly as much. This dish featured a chicken leg cooked in spiced butter, herbs, onions and green peppers that we found bland and uninteresting.
We also discovered two excellent dishes among the specials of the day. One was a lentil soup (75 cents), which was as good a homemade soup as we've had anywhere. Not a thick porridge, it was more like a vegetable soup with lots of carrots, beans and onions in it.
Another special was shish kabob ($4.95), which was beautifully seasoned and served with plain rice and green peas. For kids who like simple food and are willing to forgo the finger-licking aspect of dinner, this is the dish to order, if it's available.
For dessert we shared a few slices of cheesecake ($1.35 a slice) that had chocolate chips in it but was otherwise undistinguished.
Our family's share of dinner came to $31.73 for four people, including a beer and a cocktail for the adults, a round of soft drinks for the kids, and tax. It was more food than we could eat. Three dishes for four people probably would be enough the next time around.