Home-Style Ethiopian, Starting With the Bread
NO FORKS NEEDED At Lalibela, dishes are eaten on injera, a flatbread that looks like a large, spongy crepe.
WITH its rather spare, functional interior, and students clustered at tables, Lalibela, on Temple Street in New Haven, feels like a typical college-town coffee shop. But the menu, though refreshingly inexpensive, is far from typical.
The restaurant opened in 1999; its current chef, Shilmat Tessema, took over the kitchen about a year ago.
Lalibela, which opened in 1999, serves a collection of home-cooked Ethiopian dishes, many reminiscent in spicing and presentation to Indian curries. Its current chef-owner, Shilmat Tessema, took over the kitchen a little over a year ago. She retained the brief menu as she found it, preparing the dishes as she learned in Ethiopia, and occasionally compromising authenticity for her American audience, replacing bone-in with boneless chicken, for example. Vegetables and legumes are prominent in the cuisine, and Lalibela offers both meat and vegetarian dishes.
The centerpiece of an Ethiopian meal is injera, a flatbread that looks like a large, thin, spongy crepe. Traditionally made with ground teff (a grain native to Ethiopia) and served at room temperature, injera has a fermented taste that grows on you, even if its charms are not immediately apparent. In a phone conversation, Ms. Tessema told me that in New Haven she has had to adapt her injera recipe, by adding a percentage of wheat flour, to get the right texture.
The first night we ate at Lalibela, our waitress brought out a basket of the bread, rolled into cylinders, along with the appetizers. She explained that the bread was to be used in place of silverware, to scoop up the food. (Silverware is also available for the less adventurous.)
Though I’ve liked all of the appetizers here, I’m particularly fond of two salads made with injera: the yater fitfit, in which pieces of injera are tossed with cooked split peas (like an Indian dal), seasoned with an oil and citrus dressing, and served cold, and the timatim fitfit, in which the bread is tossed with tomatoes, chopped hot green pepper and that same dressing.
Triangular-shaped, samosa-like pastries called sambusas are offered with a choice of ground beef or lentil filling. I tasted the beef. The meat was well seasoned and quite spicy; the pastry was light and multilayered. Senge karya, a version of stuffed peppers, is a good example of the fresh simplicity of this cuisine: raw, green pepper halves are filled with chunky fresh tomato sautéed with onion and garlic. The raw crunch of the pepper marries well with the warm tomato mixture but beware — individual peppers vary, and some are very spicy.
For entrees, one may order from either the meat or vegetarian menu. (If you order a combination platter of either, you can taste four different dishes; some of the entrees are excluded from this deal.)
Meat dishes are stews, cooked in butter and seasoned with onion, garlic and some combination of other spices, including fresh ginger; shallots; dried, ground spices; and a traditional spice mixture called berbere. Some of these stews, like the alicha minchetabish (beef) and the gored gored (delicious beef with rosemary, with a hot pepper paste on the side), are quite spicy; the buttery-tasting chicken (doro alicha) and the beef stewed with carrots and potatoes (atkilt be siga) are mild.
Apart from the lamb in the yebeg kikil, which was dry, all of the stews were nicely cooked. My least favorite dish was kitfo, a very spicy, rather bitter version of steak tartare (available cooked, as well as raw). Its bitter flavor is entirely traditional but too assertive for my taste.
Of the vegetarian choices, I loved the sautéed chopped collards (gomen), sautéed spinach (kosta) and a cabbage and onion sauté (tikel gomen); all three are mild. Lentils spiced with berbere (yemiser wat) were tasty, and very spicy.
In addition to the rolls of injera served with the appetizers, entrees were accompanied by a separate platter lined with a round of the bread, placed in the center of the table. Guests share by donating a spoonful of their dish to the platter where everyone can taste with a bit of injera, now delightfully soaked in sauce.
The desserts here seem out of place — they are neither Ethiopian or home-cooked — and their quality pales in comparison with the rest of the food. But for those in need of something rich and sweet to top off the meal, there is a wedge of cheesecake or a rather dry chocolate cake.
Perhaps it’s the hominess of the cuisine, or the ritual of eating with your hands, but the pleasure of sharing these simply prepared, tasty dishes makes Lalibela a lovely place for a casual get-together.