The best restaurant in Woolwich
Update 24/9/18 – updated formatting and added details of autumn 2018 revisit
Woolwich is not one of London’s premier dining destinations – even the area’s most ardent defenders will admit that. Still, there are some culinary bright spots and one of them is the Blue Nile Cafe which is one of the very few Eritrean restaurants in the capital. Although literally overshadowed by the looming presence of the nearby giant Tesco Extra, the Blue Nile Cafe has some handsome premises. The converted 1930s sausage shop has most of its original vintage tiles and is decorated with a tasteful selection of Eritrea-related knick knacks and Art Deco prints. Service can be rather slow, but this somewhat forgivable given the small number of staff at this family-run restaurant.
Blue Nile weekday dinner
Eritrean and Ethiopian food are very similar which is no surprise given the intertwined history of both countries. Injera, a fluffy, spongy flatbread typically made from teff or other similar grains, is used to grasp dollops of vegetarian and meat stews. This is all done using your hands and while cutlery is available if you really don’t want to get your hands dirty, Bleeding Gums Murphy was more than happy to jump in with his fingers (after washing his calloused digits first, naturally). Blue Nile’s injera is somewhat less tart than Lalibela’s, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as the taste of injera can sometimes drown out the taste of the stews.
Vegetarians are always well-served by Eritrean food. The silsi, a tomato and onion stew, was sharp and rich despite its thinness. The spinach hamli stew was salty, wrinkly and moreish – so much so that I initially mistook it for kale. Shiro is a coarse and chunky chickpea concoction, but it tasted less like hummus and more like pumpkin due to its mild sweetness.
Dedicated carnivores will be disappointed by the minced texture of the lamb and beef zigni, but both are enjoyable nonetheless. The lamb came in a mild, slightly sweet and somewhat onion-ish sauce while the beef came in a rich, lightly spicy sauce that was reminiscent of Tunisian harissa sauce.
Bleeding Gums Murphy had never encountered affogato before, an Italian dessert of coffee poured over ice cream. He was therefore far more impressed by Blue Nile’s affogato than I was. The ice cream was dotted with small chewy bits of toffee, but was far too cold and icy – a longer resting time out of the freezer might have helped counteract this – while the bland coffee was uninteresting.
Blue Nile weekend dinner
I returned to Blue Nile for a second dinner with Templeton Peck and Vicious Alabaster. The hamli was just as good as it was before, while the motley assortment of vegetables in the alicha was coarse, chunky and mildly creamy. The amusingly-named tumtumo had tender lentils served with a peppery, mildly spicy sauce.
Unlike my first dinner, it was the meat dishes that stole the show this time around. The lamb kilwa consisted of tender, hearty chunks of baby sheep in a peppery and mildly garlicky sauce that was somewhat spicy. The hands-down favourite for all three of us was the doro stebhi, a gently spiced chicken stew. While the thin, greasy sauce is unappealing visually, its addictively moreish taste makes it a must-have.
While I don’t drink alcohol, Vicious Alabaster has no such inhibitions and is often at her most hilarious when slightly inebriated. While she enjoyed the mes, a sweet, dry, herby and medicinal beverage, its intensely bold flavours made it better suited as an digestif rather than as a drink to accompany food.
Sorry folks, no photo of this one.
Blue Nile lunch (well, lunches)
Injera and stews are also available at lunchtimes as are a choice of single-bowl dishes. Curiously, the beef zigni I had for lunch one weekday had a far spicier heat than the one I shared with Bleeding Gums Murphy. The punchy heat was underlaid with a nutty flavour that only increased my belches of approval. A vegetarian stew appeared to be made out of mung beans or dal-style lentils. The latter was closer to the truth, as the stew was apparently made from split peas. The firm shells of the creamy stew had a punchy, zesty flavour that was as surprising as it was satisfying.
One of my favourite dishes at Blue Nile, aside from the injera and doro stebhi, is the kitcha fit-fit. Fried in spiced butter, this heap of soft pitta bread pieces was buttery, mildly nutty and spicy without being too greasy. A clump of tart, smooth, lightly creamy yoghurt cut through the delightful richness of the pitta bread. Overall, the kitcha fit-fit is like the fried bread in a fry-up, but far, far tastier.
The fatta is effectively a variant of the kitcha fit-fit, but with the addition of spicy green chilli slices, crisp onions and sliced tomatoes. The pieces of bread weren’t quite as rich and spicy this around, although the green chillies made up for this to an extent. The onions and tomatoes added a refreshing counterpoint to the chillies, but there wasn’t quite enough of either.
The ful doesn’t look like much at first glance – a coarse mash of broad beans with an unattractive grey-brown colour. Its nutty flavour and firm texture is delicious though and livened up further by toppings of tomatoes, green chillies and onions as well as a dash of cardamom and helpings of pitta on the side. Like the kitcha fit-fit, it’s exotic comfort food par excellence.
There are a couple of Italian dishes on the menu, a legacy of Italy’s colonial occupation of Eritrea, but neither of the ones I had were much cop. The lasagna was underwhelming due to the lacklustre meat and excessively soft sheets of pasta, but the umami tomato sauce and creamy melted cheese prevented this dish from being a completely joyless experience. A frittata is effectively an Italian omelette, but the fluffy version here was more like scrambled eggs. Flavoured with green chillies for a hint of spiciness, topped with sharp onions and sweet tomatoes and served with pitta on the side, it is at least far better than the scrambled eggs you’d get from a local caff.
Himbasha is a cardamom and raisin flavoured Eritrean bread, but the version here was far too dry for my liking and the accompaniment of so-so ice cream flecked with chewy toffee bits wasn’t endearing either. The baklava is more palatable, but hardly remarkable.
You’re far better off opting for the Eritrean coffee, although sadly it’s only available at weekends. It was a very aromatic brew with an incense-like aroma and was very smooth and rounded with no bitterness or acidity. The substantial pot means it’s made for a long, relaxing drink rather than for quick espresso-style quaffing. Oddly, it was served with a huge bowl of plain popcorn. It seemed a little out of place, but that didn’t stop me from devouring the lot.
2018 dinner update
The many vegetarian dishes in Eritrean (and Ethiopian) cuisine make it an inherently good fit for meat-dodgers, especially ones rightly tired of hackneyed dishes based around unconvincing meat substitutes.
Snaggletooth and Ticketing Correspondent were won over by all of the vegetarian dishes in their bebiaynetu set menu. The cabbage, onions and beans of the alicha were bound together by a tangy and sour, yet simultaneously moreish and light sauce.
The lightly bitter and tangy yet still moreish sauce of the hamli neatly dovetailed with the bitterness of the green leaves.
Although the chickpea shiro was arguably too salty, there was still much joy to be found in its smooth nuttiness.
The genteel moreishness of the lentil tumtumo was intermittently pepped up by ginger-like hints.
The vegetarian highlight of the evening had to be the duba stebhi, upstaging even the alicha and the shiro. The duba stebhi’s mix of pumpkin and beetroot proved to be sweet with a tingly spiced undertone, its warmth subtly complimentary rather than intensely overpowering.
While there are now fewer meat dishes at the Blue Nile Café than there are vegetarian ones, there’s still much for carnivores to enjoy. Both the zigni and alicha are available with either chicken or lamb. It’s worth having the zigni as a chicken dish as this allows the moist chook chunks to absorb the zingy if only mildly peppery and hot sauce. It bore something of a resemblance to a jalfrezi, albeit much milder – a departure from the somewhat spicier version from a few years ago.
The lamb alicha unsurprisingly used the same sauce as its vegetarian version, but with the vegetable medley replaced by minced lamb. It absorbed and retained much of the sauce’s moreishness, bolstering it with its own meatiness, making it hard to choose between either the lamb or the vegetable versions.
The injera shouldn’t be forgotten given how integral it is to the entire experience. This teff-based sourdough flatbread was, much like many of the other dishes here, just as delightful as ever. Gently sour, fluffy soft and effortlessly absorbent of even the runniest sauces, it’s used both as a plate and as utensils. Although you can of course use the injera however you wish, we found it especially effective to spoon portions of the various stews onto the main dish-sized injera and then pick them up using the smaller rolled-up curls of injera. That way, the larger injera soaked up the juices which became deliciously apparent when torn into pieces and used as edible utensils once the smaller injera had run out.
The crisp and flaky filo layers of the baklava were drenched in a thin yet delicately sweet honey. The latter’s floral qualities were neatly boosted by the clove-scented kenem tea, so it is worth choosing over the coffee as an accompaniment to the baklava for this reason alone. Hot drink or not, this baklava was a significant improvement over the version that used to be served at the Blue Nile.
The consistently high quality of Blue Nile’s cooking is all the more surprising given its low prices. You’ll struggle to spend more than £5-8 for lunch or more than £20-25 for dinner. Although the service can still be a bit slow, Blue Nile is a great place to form an addiction to Eritrean/Ethiopian food, making it well worth the 30 minute journey from Charing Cross.
What to order: Kitcha fit-fit; ful; hamli; alicha; doro and duba stebhi; kilwa; injera
What to skip: Himbasha
Name: Blue Nile Cafe
Address: 73 Woolwich New Road, Woolwich, London SE18 6ED
Phone: 020 8855 0369
Opening Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 18.00-21.00. Friday 18.00-22.00. Saturday noon-16.00 and 18.00-22.00. Sunday – call to confirm. Closed Monday.
Reservations: yeah, if you want
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £15 approx. (£5-8 at lunchtime)