The hearty, flavorful, often spicy food offered in this new campus-area restaurant is surprisingly approachable to many diners still testing the waters of vegan and Ethiopian fare

It’s time to wake up and smell the kale: Veganism is gaining momentum.

Okay, “smell the kale” is a turn of phrase, and not an activity likely to persuade anyone to go vegan. Heck, even the purported healthful ramifications of eating only plants — such benefits can be personal (many plants are high in nutrients and low in fat) and global (studies have linked plant-based diets with slowing climate change) — aren’t always effective in swaying skeptics toward vegan dining.

What is ultimately inspiring even inveterate meat-eaters like me to consume more plant-based meals is the growing number of vegan restaurants that prepare interesting, delicious food. Nile Vegan, a tiny Ethiopian eatery near the southern edge of the Ohio State campus, is a welcome new member of this trailblazing crew.

Nile is a humble operation with three fast food-style tables in a compact room. The restaurant, which is bright and tidy and has mood-setting music issuing from TVs, offers one standout ambient quality: uncommonly accommodating counter service.    

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Two $2 house beverages make interesting dining companions: a tart-sweet, light Sorrel drink and extremely lean Chai Tea.

As per tradition, diners are encouraged to eat with their hands by scooping up food with injera — the spongy, gluten-free, intriguingly tart flatbread made with fermented teff (a nutritious ancient grain) that Nile’s rib-sticking stews are presented with and ladled upon. Spoilsports who balk at playing with their food need not fret, as utensils are provided upon request. 

Nile’s two-page menu might initially appear daunting to newcomers, but a close perusal reveals overlaps among entries. Repeat visits confirm that the five combo platters ($12.99 apiece) showcased at the top of the menu are the way to go. Each offers a generous sampling of Nile’s greatest hits: comforting-yet-healthful veggie and legume preparations that are vibrantly colorful, hearty and approachable for novices who enjoy curry-style spices and garlic.

The star in the center of the Chickpea Sauce Combo is a silky, tangy and tawny-tinted sauce that offers paprika and chile notes and could probably make cardboard taste good. Like all combos, this is presented on injera in an attractive manner wherein sides fan out symmetrically on either side of the main item. This combo’s sides are: beany and garlicky French “puy” lentils; kale, cooked down with onions, that tastes like spinach; plus potatoes, carrots and cabbage in a spicy curry sauce.

Turmeric-yellow Curried Split Peas — think a soothing, successful cross between mashed potatoes and bean dip — are at the center of a combo that includes Nile’s fine kale; a spicy-and-sweet medley of carrots, potatoes and green beans dyed burgundy-red by beets; plus mild and delicious semi-pureed red lentils.

Okra enhances a larger dose of those lentils in the Red Lentil Combo. Previous acquaintances augment this edible injera “plate,” including curried split peas, kale and curried vegetables.  

The highly recommended Mushroom Combo rewards fungus fans with a zippy, tomatoey, “meaty” and terrific stew. Puy lentils, split peas and the beet veggie medley are included.

Investigating the “Breakfast Specials” category, I ordered the Ful ($7.49; breakfast items come with coffee or chai) — a heap of warm mashed fava-bean dip garnished with olive oil, jalapenos, tomatoes and onions that’s served with toasted baguette slices. Verdict: This would be a solid appetizer.

The same category offers air-fried Sambusas (three for $7), which arrived after a very long wait. I ate one and had the others wrapped to go.

Upon my exit, my server/cook stepped outside to ask about the sambusas. Shrugging, I said, “They could’ve been crisper, but I liked the garlicky lentil filling.”

When she said she’d look into improving them, I thought, “You don’t have to be a vegan to be so conscientious, but maybe it helps.”