Taste of Ethiopia
3300 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
I don't have a page of research to support it, but I'd say that the Twin Cities has 42.7 percent more African restaurants per capita than any other American metro area. Further, I bet 37.9 percent of Americans would be surprised as heck to learn that Minneapolis's default vegetarian food isn't Asian, like it is most places, but Ethiopian. When it comes to eating buttery stews, Minnesotans and Africans seem to agree without a hint of reservation that that is indeed quite the way to spend the evening.
But, sadly, this 42.7 percent are usually restaurants in the loosest sense, places where you can purchase food, but you can't obtain the other commodities restaurants provide, like time, space, and pleasure. Usually, but not here--for the House of Lalibela is a house of very nice Ethiopian food, and all those other soothing restaurant bits too.
Which just has me kicking myself for not making it in earlier, as the House of Lalibela opened last summer. I guess even after five years on this beat I'm still having a hard time distinguishing between good tips and bad ones. Every time I heard about a good African restaurant in a former Embers on East Lake Street, I just kept picturing some low-budget place with the forgotten chain-restaurant table tents still greasy on the tables. Wrong. House of Lalibela is gratifyingly fancy and ambient, the bar topped by big artsy twig screens, the walls the colors of dusty sunset. It reminds me most of Ciao Bella or Campiello--a big, airy, contemporary space with flattering, attention-drawing lights of every description.
And with the top-flight lighting, top-flight beverages: House of Lalibela even has in its wine list four Ethiopian wines, the first I've come across in my restaurant hopping. I tried the Nibit honey wine ($5.95 a glass, $22 a bottle), which was, as you might expect, very sweet, but also focused in an interesting way on a narrow band of lemony and honeyed flavors. (I was happy to try the stuff, but it definitely got to tasting like flat Sprite as it warmed, so be warned.) On that crisper line of tastes, there are also four African beers, all $3.75. My favorite was the Zambezi from Zimbabwe, a very hoppy, slightly sweet lager in the German style--very clean and brisk. Of the two Ethiopian red wines, Axumit and Gouder (both $5.95/$25), I came to prefer the sweeter, raisiny, high-acid Axumit over the dryer but thinner Gouder--though I think what I really liked about the Axumit was that it wasn't like wine from anyplace else. Stick your nose in the glass and it's like opening an old vintage trunk, all sorts of leather, old perfume, and must. Talk about sense of place: This stuff is a journey via stemware.
The food is just as remarkable. True, just as at other Ethiopian restaurants, it's essentially a series of stews made with clarified butter and served on injera--a giant soft pancake made with a sourdough-like batter. You rip off sections of injera and use it to scoop up the various stews. Yet at other Ethiopian restaurants the various stews can begin to all taste the same. At House of Lalibela they're often notably distinct: Yemiser azifa is a cold, lemony green-lentil salad made with a crisp zing of fresh jalapeños; kitfo is a meat dish described as steak tartare, but when I had it it was cooked, and very tasty--a dry, lemony ground beef with a crumbly texture; yebeg wat is a rich, savory, spicy dish of wine-marinated lamb braised in berbere, that African chile-spice mix--it's dusky, hot, and potent. Don't bother to try to remember the names of those; they'll tend to show up on whatever combination plate you order, which is the way to eat here, as you'll get to try a couple of different things for nearly the same price as ordering a single dish à la carte. (Combination pricing has many variations, but it essentially runs from $10 for one person for the simplest vegetarian option to $17 for the most ambitious meat one, and the cost goes down if more people order the same thing. For example, four people all getting the vegetarian sampler will spend $32, or $8 a head.) I pretty much fell in love with the place once they allowed me to order both a vegetarian and a meat sampler on the same tray, which no other restaurant has ever let me do. It's such a pleasure to move between the different stews and have them all taste like their own individually considered and spiced dishes--so many Ethiopian restaurants around here just fall under the same curse that plagues nearly all of our Indian restaurants: Different restaurant, same steam table. You also don't have to fight servers for more injera at House of Lalibela--anyone who's eaten at certain restaurants knows what I'm talking about: You sit at your table volunteering, "I'll pay!" for more of the bread, and your server narrows his eyes at you, silently vowing, "Oh no you won't," and disappears. And yet at House of Lalibela the staff seems to be motivated by genuine hospitality: Whatever you want, you can get. Everyone I met seemed truly delighted to explain the details of cuisine or wine, the rarest experience in any restaurant. Actually, I don't have the science to prove it, but I'm still pretty sure that every time I left House of Lalibela I was 32 percent happier than when I went in.
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