2009.02.18 From Cobb salad to injera

Written by David Green.


My sister, Diane, was surprised that I didn’t write about my unusual meal last week. She’s right, it wasn’t the typical fare.

The press association’s closing banquet at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel is always a rather fancy affair. More forks than you know what to do with. Too many glasses of water to know which is yours. Too many ways to look foolish.

I thought it was odd this year that we weren’t asked to choose between fish or beef or between chicken and pork. There wasn’t any choice at all. Just a meal ticket.

Generally you walk in, find an empty seat and perhaps begin with one of several interesting choices of rolls in the basket. This year there was only one species of roll. It was good, but odd that there was no choice.

Generally, you move on to a salad before the dishes are cleared for the main course. Well, this time the salad was the main course. And the dishes weren’t cleared by a massive swarm of dining room staff members in order to bring in the amazing dessert. The cheesecake slices were already in place before the meal began.

I’m not complaining about the lack of the usual fare, although I might suggest that I wasn’t served a $30 salad. About that salad.…

The Cobb Salad was allegedly invented at Hollywood’s Brown Derby restaurant late one night. Wikipedia lists the main ingredients as iceberg lettuce, tomato, bacon, chicken breast, hard-boiled egg, avocado and roquefort cheese.

Iceberg lettuce? Yes, that’s what it was. Avocado? I wish there would have been some avocado. As salads go, I can’t rate the Cobb very highly.

Wikipedia adds this note: “The Cobb salad has been criticized by the Doctors Hospital for being unhealthy when compared to other salads.”

So I guess this was a year to cut back on expenses for the press association. We could have saved a lot of cash by ditching the Amway Grand and instead having dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant. I think that would have pleased the Doctors Hospital staff.

Actually, Ethiopian food is what my sister expected me to write about. The Cobb salad left us a little hungry so we stopped in East Lansing and I called Diane for a restaurant recommendation.

Actually, I asked for my niece, Janelle, who wasn’t home. My brother-in-law, Dick, answered the phone and I knew better than to ask him for a suggestion. Any place that doesn’t serve vegetables would be fine with Dick.

Diane had three recommendations, including Altu’s Ethiopian Cuisine. Colleen has eaten at the Blue Nile in Ann Arbor but I hadn’t yet tried Ethiopian. Unlike the Blue Nile where guests sit on the floor, Altu provides chairs.

Each “table” is a stand resembling a woven bird bath, but taller. The basin of the table is covered with a woven, inverted bowl that’s removed when the food arrives.

I ordered what was formerly called the Saturday Special and is now known as Garlic Lentils. Colleen took the better option: a combo dish with samples of four meals. Lentils, ground peas, white beans with potatoes, and a different lentil mix.

If you’re not familiar with Ethiopian eating, you might be surprised when the large plate arrives and you discover that everything is placed on a large piece of round bread. Around the edges are rolls of the same, spongy bread, which also serves as the utensil. Break off a piece of the bread and use it to grab some lentils. Eventually, the bread on the bottom is eaten, too.

You’ve gotta love that bread to enjoy the meal, and I didn’t love that bread.

The bread is called injera. It’s like a sourdough pancake but without the good taste. That’s my opinion. Colleen liked it just fine. The fermentation process leaves a slightly sour or tangy taste.

We never spoke with owner Altu Tadesse, but her assistant served us well. He took our order, served the food and spent the remainder of our time there on his cell phone talking about the recent Super Bowl game.

That alone made Altu’s a special place. No questions about how I liked the meal. No filling of the water glass after every sip. We ate in peace, just the way I like it.

Give Altu’s a try. You might like the bread and the white beans with potatoes are excellent. And if you’re odd like me, you’ll love the lack of service.

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