Queen Sheba on Capitol Hill is an adequate introduction to Ethiopian fare but lacks the fire that characterizes that cuisine to make it outstanding.

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As soon as we stepped in the door there was an aroma of spice drifting from the kitchen.

We dived into Queen Sheba’s menus with wonder and enthusiasm, both of us new converts to Ethiopian food. On the menu we read the cultural information about “gursha,” placing food into each other’s mouths in a gesture of friendship and loyalty, and browsed the list of what to us were exotic dishes of spicy lentils, chicken, lamb or seafood from a civilization where the Queen of Sheba once ruled. It seemed like this dining experience would be amazing.

The menu: Ethiopian food is the spiciest of all the African cuisines and the berberi, a red pepper, is one of 15 spices traditionally used along with ginger and turmeric. But there was little evidence of it in what we ate, where the food was nice but not as flavorful as I expected.

My friend called it like eating at an “Ethiopian Denny’s,” adequate but not outstanding.

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We ordered kike, a dish of dried peas cooked with spices, $8.95; the lamb stew, tsebhs, which was made with split red lentils, onions and olive oil in a red sauce, $10.95; and appetizer rolls, about $5, which turned out to be lentils rolled in injera, a spongy pancake and the foundation of lots of dishes for both countries. Our food arrived at the table on a large piece of injera spread over an enamel bowl, an Ethiopian tradition.

After we gobbled everything down — and I was full — my friend looked around and asked when the main course was coming. For hearty appetites, the portions may be way too small.

What to write home about: The honey wine, a sweet white wine, was nice.

The atmosphere: Located just off Broadway, the traffic noise fades away and in its place is African music, heavy wooden arches, gauze curtains and small tables for intimate dining. There were baby strollers parked outside the door, and small children in the restaurant dined quietly with their parents.

What to avoid: A mixed-greens appetizer turned out to be just a tossed green salad, which was good, but not what we expected.

Summing up: Dinner for two with appetizers and honey wine came to $52. Queen Sheba will probably have as many fans who don’t like spicy food as critics who want their Ethiopian food to be distinctive.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

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