WELCOME TO MONTREAL, the Paris of North America. Human population: 3.4 million in a thriving metropolitan area. Ethiopian restaurant population: two – while they last.
How can a city so big and so international have only two Ethiopian restaurants? Even Ottawa, with a metro population of only 1.2 million, has four of them, and one of those four has a market where you can buy spices and even gesho to make t’ej.
Over the years, many Ethiopian restaurants have come and gone in Montreal, which is not unusual in the restaurant business. But with so little Ethiopian cuisine there, why can’t the city sustain more than two restaurants? Luckily, one of them is a mom-‘n’-pop gem in the city’s interesting Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (NDG) neighborhood.
I recently took a road trip to Montreal by way of Rochester, N.Y., and Ottawa, then home through Lancaster, Pa. Rochester’s Ethiopian restaurants don’t usually last too long, but one has been around for about eight years. And little Lancaster, the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish country, now has an Ethiopian restaurant that includes a market with spices and kitchen supplies.
Here’s a report on what I found in these four cities.
YOU CAN STILL FIND TRACES of former Montreal Ethiopian restaurants like Magdala and Messob d’Or on the internet with reviews from gratified patrons. Abiata was the most recent to close: It happened within the past year, and its beautiful old stone building on the trendy Rue Saint-Denis is still vacant.
But don’t grieve too much for its proprietors. They also own the city’s oldest Ethiopian restaurant, Le Nil Bleu, just a few blocks up the street. Le Nil Bleu has been around for almost 25 years, and it’s now an upscale place, with young waiters (non-Ethiopians) in black shirts and ties.
The restaurant has a large and authentic Ethiopian menu, along with a newer selection of pan-African dishes. But on the day I visited, I chatted with a couple from (of all places) Washington, D.C., as they ate a most unusual appetizer. The menu called it butecha, a dish made with chick peas, but it looked like hummus. Butecha should look like scrambled eggs, and only one other time have I seen it look the way they served it at Nil Bleu. That was at the long-gone Fasika in Washington, D.C.
Surprisingly, Le Nil Bleu doesn’t serve t’ej, an exotic treat that would go nicely with its ambiance (not to mention with its food). No winery that I’ve found in Canada makes it, but a few restaurants in Toronto now import it from wineries in the United States. Surely Le Nil Bleu could do the same.
For my money, though, give me East Africa Restaurant, located along Rue Sherbrooke West in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, a neighborhood with multi-cultural restaurants, an increasingly young professional population and a slightly bohemian feel.
East Africa Restaurant is a tiny place, longer than it is wide, with eight tables that seat a total of 16 people, plus a few more tables on a small outdoor patio. It’s owned by Maritu Mekuria and Abraham Yohannes, a married couple who themselves represent some of the diversity of Ethiopia: Maritu is Beta Israel – an Ethiopian Jew – and Abraham, who isn’t Jewish, was born in Asmara back when Eritrea was still a federated state of Ethiopia. Maritu found her way to Montreal under the sponsorship of a Jewish organization, and she has relatives in Israel, where she’s visited but never lived.
Maritu and Abraham came to Canada separately about 20 years ago and met here. He opened a sporting goods company after his arrival, and she owned a restaurant in the late 1990s before closing it and then working in day care. The couple launched East Africa Restaurant in February 2011, offering a big menu for such a little place. They don’t label their cuisine “Ethiopian,” though, out of respect for both of the cultures. That’s something they should reconsider, for “Ethiopian” is a brand name of cuisine, even in cities that don’t seem to know much about it.
Maritu is also the city’s supplier of injera, which she makes for her restaurant and also sells to two local markets: Akhaven, located a few blocks away on Sherbrooke and owned by an Iranian immigrant; and Al Mizan, owned by an Arab immigrant. She buys all of her meat for East Africa Restaurant from a nearby halal butcher.
I had two dinners there: On Saturday, Maritu cooked while Abraham waited on tables, but on Monday is was all Maritu, all night. (Sometimes their teen-age daughter, Betty, helps with the tables.) The two kept busy with a steady flow of customers both nights, although the clientele didn’t always seem to be terribly sophisticated when it came to Ethiopian cuisine.
One couple on Monday night drilled Maritu on the spice level of the food, so she assured them that it wasn’t too fiery. Another couple were first-timers at an Ethiopian restaurant: The husband had cooked it once at home, with mixed results, and now wanted to try the real thing. But the wife was spice-aversive, so it took them a while to find dishes that wouldn’t burn her sensitive palate.
Another table consisted of two middle-aged American women and the adult son of one of them. They had eaten the cuisine before but still seemed like novices: They asked for some bread before the meal the way one would at an American restaurant. So Maritu brought them some complementary veggie dishes to nibble on with injera before their dinners arrived. That pacified them.
Then there were the two difficult young women who didn’t seem to believe that Maritu understood their order. They kept repeating it – they both ordered the same dish – and when Maritu said she would give them a complementary side salad (described on the menu), they asked twice if she had a salad with lettuce. No, she said, just the tomato salad she had offered them. They finally seemed to be content with the proffer.
But my best story about dining at East Africa Restaurant occurred on Saturday, my first night there. I settled into my table and then approached Maritu and Abraham to ask them a little about their restaurant. I told them I was interested in Ethiopian food. When I returned to my table, a woman sitting with her husband at a nearby table smiled at me in a way that said she wanted to talk. When I sat down, she said she couldn’t help overhearing that I was interested in Ethiopian cuisine.
Before she spoke her next sentence, I knew what was coming: “Have you,” she asked, “read the book Mesob Across America?” Small world.
So I confessed authorship of the book, which delighted her, and we spent some time talking about Ethiopian cuisine, which they’ve made at home for many years. They also knew a lot about the history of the city’s long-gone Ethiopian restaurants.
It seems likely that the established Le Nil Bleu will be around Montreal for a long time. But for a young restaurant like East Africa, word-of-mouth is essential. So if you live in Montreal, or know someone who does, do what you can to support this homey place.
THE OTTAWA ETHIOPIAN RESTAURANT SCENE has more to offer than Montreal in a few ways: four restaurants, one that serves t’ej, and two markets that sell injera, spices and gesho. The city has had an Ethiopian restaurant since at least 1996, when an article in The New York Times said: “From Indian to Afghan and Ethiopian, immigrants in recent years have brought Ottawa remarkable restaurant diversity.” Unfortunately, the article doesn’t name the restaurant to which it refers.
The largest restaurant in the city – and also the one least likely to be visited by ferenj – is Eri Café, located on the second floor of a nondescript building on Somerset Street West. It has a full menu and a professional website, but it doesn’t quite have what you would call décor. The small sign above the front door leading to the stairway up to the restaurant proclaims the name clearly; the larger sign above the second floor window, which says “Eri Cafe” in English and in Ge’ez (the name for the alphabet used to write Amharic and Tigrinya), now has a few letters missing at the beginning, so you can’t quite make out the restaurant’s name in English. (Here’s what it looked like when it was intact.) The restaurant has no reviews posted on either Yelp or Urban Spoon.
Upstairs, Eri Café has two rooms: on the left, a dining room with a pool table in the corner, and on the right, a banquet hall where the restaurant hosts bands and events. The menu has all the tasty basics, and there’s a full bar with Canadian and imported wines and beers. It’s open from 10 a.m. until 11 p.m. daily, and until 2 a.m. on weekend nights.
I didn’t try the food only because I had just one day in the city, and I arrived there between meals. I chatted briefly with the owner and asked him if there was a large Eritrean population in Ottawa. “This is their place,” he said proudly, and I’m sure he’s right.
A few miles away from Eri Café, and a few blocks apart from each other along the culinarily diverse Rideau Street, you’ll find two of the city’s other Ethiopian restaurants: Habesha and Horn of Africa. Neither has a website, but both have followings, with plenty of online reviews at numerous sites.
They’re small restaurants, far from fancy, and like Eri Café, they’re open from late morning until late at night. Horn of Africa sells alcohol but no t’ej and has a covered patio for outdoor dining. Habesha has neither, but its patrons seem to like it just the same, and the restaurant offers catering for weddings and parties.
Finally, there’s Blue Nile, located along residential Gladstone Avenue, not far from Eri Café. This is where you can have a glass of homemade t’ej with your meal, and where you can buy all the supplies you need to cook Ethiopian food at home. Look to your right when you enter Blue Nile and you’ll see two tall, well-stocked racks of foods, spices and even gesho.
And if you want more options for buying your Ethiopian cooking supplies, then walk right across the street to Olympia Market, a Greek-owned mini-mart and butcher shop that sells injera and Ethiopian spices. I entered the crowded shop to stares from the young man behind the front counter and from the two older men in the back, their aprons bloodied from the slabs of meat at which they were hacking away. “You want something from here?” one of the older man asked, his speech accented, and when I said “no,” he returned to his work.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a Greek market selling Ethiopian goods, although it was a little odd seeing it right across the street from a place with much more to offer. In Los Angeles, you’ve been able to buy Ethiopian spices and teff for years at Papa Cristo’s, a large Greek market, restaurant and bakery on Pico Boulevard. Decades ago, before there were many Ethiopian markets and restaurants in the city, Ethiopians had no church of their own and began to attend Greek Orthodox churches. That gave Papa Cristo’s the idea of seizing on a niche market by stocking Ethiopian foods and spices.
I don’t know what happened to get Olympia Market in the Ethiopian food business, but I didn’t want to bother the fellows wielding the cleavers by asking a lot of questions.
Rochester & Lancaster
TWO SUMMERS AGO, on a drive through upstate New York on the way to Boston, I stopped in Rochester to have dinner at Abyssinia, a somewhat newly opened Ethiopian restaurant. The food was delicious, and the restaurant was lovely.
But now it’s gone, a victim of a rent increase, the owner says. He’s looking for a new location. Lilu Cafe, another Ethiopian restaurant in Rochester, had just opened when I passed through town in 2010. It’s now a hookah lounge. And in the time since my earlier visit, Walia Ethiopian Cafe has opened and closed.
So it’s great that Rochester residents can still find Ethiopian food at Natural Oasis, a vegan restaurant whose lunch menu consists of a small but tasty Ethiopian buffet. The restaurant, which also has a shop up front that sells health supplements, has been around for 10 years, serving its Ethio buffet for eight of those years. The owner is Ethiopian, and his sister cooks the food, including very tangy injera (just the way I like it).
On the day I had lunch, the buffet featured tikil gomen, kik alicha, atkilt alicha and misir alicha, along with rice and silverware – two very un-Ethiopian accompaniments. All of the dishes were fresh and flavorful. Unfortunately, Natural Oasis only serves Ethiopian food for its noontime meal. In the evening, there’s a regular vegan menu. So Rochester is still something of an oasis when it comes to Ethiopian cuisine.
If you search on the internet for “Ethiopian food Rochester,” your search will turn up Ethiopian Food Market, about a mile or so from Natural Oasis. The owner is indeed Ethiopian, and from time to time he sells teff. But he doesn’t have spices, and if you ask him where people in Rochester can buy injera, he’ll direct you to Natural Oasis, which offers it for takeout.
The scene is better in Lancaster, Pa., where you can get both meat and vegetarian Ethiopian dishes for lunch and dinner at Addisu, a restaurant owned by Addisu Eggu. He offers a full menu of beef, chicken and lamb dishes, with lots of vegetarian selections, plus a few platters that allow you to combine a meat with veggies.
And if you want to make Ethiopian food yourself, Addisu has everything that you need. The restaurant’s small marketplace sells imported spices, Ethiopian coffee, and even two devices for making injera: The Heritage Lefse Grill, which you can also buy online at Target; and a mogogo – the Eritrean word for mitad – created by an Eritrean inventor in Seattle who sells the product on his website. The place also sells large cast aluminum calderos made by Imusa that Addisu says are ideal for making Ethiopian stews.
Addisu recently moved his restaurant from a smaller space to a larger one, and he’s decorated it with Ethiopian art on the walls and a section by the window up front with chairs around a collection of large mesobs. But business is slow, and it’s no wonder: Just a few miles away, people still churn their own butter. So Lancaster is lucky to have a place like Addisu – while it lasts.
University of Pittsburgh