When I think “Luxury”, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia is not the first place in the world that springs to mind. Maybe New York City, London, or Paris make me think of fancy hotels, restaurants, and general sophistication. So when I pulled up to the Sheraton in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, my jaw dropped.
I’ve stayed in luxury hotels before, but I was not expecting this degree of luxury and opulence here! The hotel stands in sharp contrast to the tin walled & roofed makeshift houses that are right next door. While you are driving through Addis from the airport to the hotel, the view is much like you’d expect – poverty is evident and it is clear that this country has a way to go before graduating from its 3rd World status. But it is very much a city that is developing, as is evident from all of the new restaurants and cafes that are popping up all around the city. There are plenty of options for a good meal in this city, and by western standards, the restaurants are downright cheap!! By western standards, the room service at the hotel is also inexpensive, but don’t fall into the same trap I did, and feel like you should order room service and take advantage of the good deal instead of venturing out….. the room service is cheap when compared to what would be available in other similar hotels worldwide, but it is actually expensive when compared to what is readily available when you leave the hotel.
Here’s an example of some of the fine dining available in Addis: I went with some coworkers to a restaurant that was recommended to me by someone back in Djibouti. As an aside, when an American friend in Djibouti suggested that I should go to an Italian Restaurant in Addis Ababa, I scoffed and told P that I’ve lived in Italy, so my standards for Italian cooking are very high, so I wasn’t sure if I should really do that in Ethiopia. He quickly recommended a Chinese restaurant as well. Despite my hesitation, I asked around about the Italian restaurant in Addis, and everyone seemed to agree that its somewhat of an institution in Addis, and is frequented by the likes of Brad and Angelina, as well as former US President Jimmy Carter when they are in town. Suddenly, my worry was more about it being out of my league than not up to my standards! But a coworker in Addis suggested that we go, and got a group of foodies together, and I couldn’t resist trying the restaurant, so off we went.
We arrived at Castelli’s, in the Piazza neighborhood, just after 7pm, and apparently right after they had opened their doors. The building was clearly not initially designed to be a restaurant, as it is set up more like a house or apartment, but each room you pass after the initial foyer is filled to capacity with tables and chairs instead of sofas and other home-furnishings. Our foursome is seated in a small room, with only 2 other tables – an empty one set for 3 people and an occupied two-top. We say hello to our fellow diners, and begin to pour over the menu….. It is extensive, to say the least! We had passed a tempting looking antipasto buffet on the way in, and our waiter suggests that in addition to our appetizer selection of grilled calamari in a creamy garlic sauce, we may wish to take a plate of the grilled veggies, salumi, smoked house mozzarella, and various other goodies. We enthusiastically agree, and send L off to select a plate of yummies for us, and order a bottle of wine. Now, I mentioned that our four-some was all made of foodies. This was essential to our experience, as we quickly determined that, despite just having met, we are all food-sharers, and want to experience as much of the menu as possible so we will order different things and sample each others selections.
After pouring over the menu and hemming and hawing a bit, we finally make our selections. I go with the fettucine in a creamy truffle sauce, as I am a firm believer in the fact that truffle oil/flavor makes anything better. Our appetizers arrive and we order a bottle of wine – we went with a Dolcetto D’Alba that, as it turns out, is specially bottled for Castelli’s at a vineyard in Italy. The selection from the Antipasto bar is delicious, and I savor the salumi that I can not readily find (or afford when I can find it, as both pork and imported products come at a premium) in Djibouti. But the highlight of the appetizer course is without a doubt the calamari! The delicately grilled squid is not even the slightest bit chewy, and paired with a creamy garlic sauce that made you want to lick the plate clean (but no, don’t worry, I did resist the temptation….. only after using my bread to mop up as much as possible though!) I can’t imagine a better use of calamari than this. We were already impressed after the first course.
For the second course, my dining companions had selected saffron spaghetti, Fettucine alla gorgonzola, and mushroom risotto to accompany my fettucine al tartuffo. The Saffron spaghetti was an unusual blend of flavors, with a bit of spice at the end – yum. The Mushroom risotto surprised us all when it turned out to be tomato based, not cream based, but when we apprehensively tasted it, we were pleasantly surprised and very content with the fullness of the flavor. The Fettucine alla Gorgonzola (which I believe, with the Saffron Spaghetti, is a house specialty) had a rich flavor that struck the right balance between the power of the Gorgonzola and the softness of the cream. But I have to say (and my dining companions agreed, having given me the honorary title of best orderer for the main course) that my Fettucine in the creamy truffle sauce was by far the best thing we ordered. The only word I can use to describe it (without feeling like I’m not doing it justice) is heavenly. If you ever find yourself in Addis Ababa, and you enjoy the flavor of truffles, you will be doing yourself a great disservice if you don’t seek this dish out. I would consider flying back here just to get it!! Fantastic perfection on a plate. And, to top it all off, the serving sizes are generous here, so I was happy to share as there was no way I would have been able to polish off the whole thing myself, as its delicious richness could have been my undoing. Though what a way to go that would be!! With assistance, my entire plate was polished off, and the other 3 main dishes were packed up in “to-go” containers, so that we could still manage a few bites of dessert.
The deserts we selected (in addition to a couple of macchiatos) were a lemon sorbet and a creme caramel. Both good, but in my mind, nothing else will touch the wonder of my main course, so I won’t go further into detail on the deserts at this point. I will, however, take a moment to talk about the price of this delicious culinary adventure. The bill came, and we looked it over. I braced myself for the bad news, as certainly a meal of this quality would come with a hefty price tag. They broke it down for me. 500 Birr each would include a very generous tip for our fantastic waiter. I sat there doing and re-doing the math in my head. Could that possibly be right? Could I possibly have just had that fantastic experience for approximately $31 US Dollars??? Including the wine, the dessert, everything?? Yes! Yes, I could!! 500 Birr is outrageously expensive by Ethiopian standards, where you should be able to enjoy a good meal out for about 1/3 of that price with no problem at all. But when you compare the price of this meal to what you would pay for it in New York City or London, you gladly fork over your share and are happy that you don’t have to pay 5 times it – though in light of the quality, I wouldn’t have blinked if they had told me my share came to $150 – I am, after all, used to New York prices. This was just the icing on the cake of my delicious culinary experience in Addis Ababa. I will definitely return!!
I have yet to see my friend who initially recommended the restaurant, but when I do, I will humbly accept any future recommendation he gives me, and will, tail-between-my-legs, sheepishly admit that I should never have doubted the quality of an Italian restaurant in Addis Ababa. In fact, I am not alone in thinking that Castelli’s should be considered one of the best Italian restaurants outside of Italy (if not in the world!) A quick google search will reveal that many people have taken this position. Here are a couple of other reviews, should you not trust the world of a travelling chitalian and want further evidence: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/restaurants/3319726/Star-rating-for-an-Addis-trattoria.html and http://edition.cnn.com/video/#/video/international/2009/02/10/inside.africa.c.castelli.cnn?iref=allsearch.
If you’re in Addis Ababa and $30 is within your budget, you owe it to yourself to have this experience.
Oh, and one more thing, on a totally unrelated note. Another place to stop into while in Addis is Muya Ethiopia. It’s a little hard to find, so I recommend having their number handy in case your taxi driver wants to call them for directions (which is never a bad idea, as addresses appear to be meaningless in Addis), but well worth it for some souvenirs. What you find there may not be that different from what you can find elsewhere in the city (lots of scares, pottery, and even furniture), but it is a fair trade shop, so unlike the market stalls in the city, you can be assured that it was not made by a child in a sweat-shop. You might pay a little bit more here than elsewhere, but you still get good prices, good quality merchandise, and you can even take a few minutes to visit other parts of the compound, and see people at work on the looms making the crafts you take away with you. Check it out! http://www.muyaethiopia.com/
So long for now!