Kitsch and kitfo by the kilo*
*meat not actually sold by the kilogram. I just like alliteration.
Cities and towns across Britain are largely filled with the same ol’ usual suspects when it comes to restaurants – Italian, Indian, Chinese, Thai and perhaps a French place or a gastropub. London, thankfully, is different with some unusual restaurants tucked away in its quieter neighbourhoods. North London has a relatively large number of Ethiopian eateries, but Lalibela in Tufnell Park stands out due to its kitsch-filled decor and because it comes recommended by The Flame Haired Squelchie, one of my most trusted and articulate dining companions.
Lalibela, named after the Ethiopian town famed for its monolithic rock-hewn churches, is overflowing with Ethiopian chintz from vaguely religious iconography to a photo of Haile Selassie and Winston Churchill. The hard wooden chairs can be brutally uncomfortable though – especially the odd benches surrounding an oversized coffee table used for seating large groups. Service, while friendly, can be achingly slow. On a quiet day, it’s merely ponderous. But when the place is packed out on a Friday or Saturday evening, it becomes life-sappingly glacial.
Cutlery isn’t traditionally used when eating Ethiopian food. You instead use injera, a tart, spongy flatbread that resembles a flattened crumpet, to scoop food up and pop it in your mouth. It can get messy and finger bowls aren’t provided, so a family pack of wet wipes would be a useful thing to bring along. Food is served on a huge communal injera, with smaller rolls provided if you run out.
Lalibela’s service may be slower than an arthritic tortoise with memory loss, but it was made more bearable by the Squelchie’s charmingly eccentric company. She threw aside her increasingly part-time vegetarianism to share the kitfo, an Ethiopian version of steak tartare. Although it’s also available well-done, that would be missing the point. The smoothly ground, light and moist raw beef had a light butteriness and herbiness to it. The Squelchie thinks cardamom may be involved somewhere, but wouldn’t swear to it. In any case, while Lalibela’s kitfo doesn’t quite have the same depth of flavour as the best steak tartares, or the Korean equivalent of yukhoe, it’s still a delectable must-have.
It’s no surprise that the Squelchie is fond of Ethiopian food given the number of vegetarian and vegan dishes. The gomen wat, for example, is a moreish dish of slightly sour and salty wrinkly cabbage, while the azifa is a helping of fluffy, mildly herby lentils. Tender sliced fingers of moist okra were cooked through perfectly and served in a fruity tomato-based sauce.
It’s not all a complete success though. The pumpkin wot consisted of tender, but bland chunks of pumpkin in an admittedly moreish, slightly spicy tomato-based sauce.
Coffee at Lalibela is a theatrical affair with the beans roasted fresh in front of you in a special ladel-like pan. The resulting brew had a weird sweaty smell, but this was largely obscured by the scents of pistachio and frankincense burned in a small ash tray-style container. The coffee itself, served black, was mildly bitter and rather anonymous but it wasn’t too acidic and had enough kick to stop me falling asleep on the Tube home.
The Squelchie also had a couple bottles of St George beer, an Ethiopian brew which she described as malty and full-boded.
I returned to Lalibela on a weekday night with the help of The Lensman, Veal Smasher, Porn Master and Happy Buddha. Between the five of us, we managed to order a staggering amount of food – just thinking about it is enough to make me full. The Lensman and Happy Buddha got the ball rolling with the Ye-stom Beyaynetu, a combination of lentils and split peas in a spicy sauce. Although the sauce’s heat was tepid at best, the tender, moreish lentils and the salty peas went down a treat. Of all the accompanying sides, the one that stood out the most was the coarse, fluffy, nutty puree of chick peas – basically hummus.
Happy Buddha and Porn Master went for the meaty version, the Beyaynetu. The minced lamb used was both tasteless and textureless, but it came in two sauces, one mild and one hot. Both were thick, a little oily and heart warmingly satisfying. The hot sauce actually had some spice to it, but it wasn’t as potent as the third part of this platter – the minchetabesh, a chilli, peppery sauce smothered over more minced lamb and, curiously, hard boiled eggs. It was so addictive, Veal Smasher ordered another portion all for himself.
Happy Buddha’s cucumber and yoghurt salad was a forgettable blob, but the gomem wot and okra were just as good before. The spinach was a pleasingly bitter and garlicky dish.
Cabbage, potatoes and carrots sounds like the beginnings of a dull vegetable stew, but here it was a moist, warming, lightly bitter and salty blend of veg that managed to hold its own against the more powerfully spiced dishes.
Porn Master’s addition of sizzling lamb tibs was a complete disappointment – bland, chewy strips of meat in a so-so tomato sauce.
The lamb wasn’t any better in my lamb and pumpkin wot, but the pumpkin chunks were better than last time – sweet as well as tender which went surprisingly well with the thin, garlicky tomato sauce.
Lalibela no longer has a dessert menu, but an ice cream parlour, Ruby Violet, is just a few doors down across the road.
In an unexpected twist, meat isn’t Lalibela’s strong suit. With the exception of the kitfo, the vegetarian dishes are far better. Although this will put off narrow-minded carnivores, that merely leaves more space for the rest of us to enjoy Lalibela’s simple, tasty, hearty, warming food. If only the service would pick up the pace.
Address: 137 Fortess Road, Tufnell Park, London NW5 2HR
Phone: 0207 284 0600
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday 18.00-23.30 and Sunday 18.00-22.00.
Reservations: probably a good idea for large groups.
Average cost for one person including service, drinks and coffee: £25-30 approx.