Monday, May 17, 2010

Cafe Lalibela

Café Lalibela seems to be the "starter restaurant" for Ethiopian cuisine.  The conversation usually goes something like this:

Person A: "Have you tried Awash/African Town/Harambe/Abesha/Dinknesh Lucy?"
Person B: "No, but I've been to Lalibela."

I'm not sure what it is.  It's probably the most appealing to middle class sensibilities, I guess, with nice decor and less of a cafeteria feel than some of the other Ethiopian restaurants.  But hey, who am I to judge - I popped my Ethio cherry there.  My friends and I went a long time ago and did enjoy it, but we all migrated to African Town on badass Nicholson St.  If we were going to be brutally honest, it was probably more about the cred than any superiority of African Town's food.  Sometimes, though, you just want a bit of tablecloth action, and because having dinner with K is such a rare treat, I decided Lalibela was the place for us.

After a few sips of frosty Ethiopian brews, we chose the vegetarian combination and the doro wat, a traditional celebratory dish of chicken and hard-boiled eggs, slow-cooked in berbere and niter kibbeh The owner took our order but very sadly informed us there was only one piece of deliciously sour, dimpled injera bread left.  With sad smiles, we accepted rice with our meal along with the lone piece.  A few minutes later, he rushed past our table to the door, and as we looked up, he exclaimed, "Going to find you more bread!"  Indeed, he returned with a plastic bag full of injera - from whence I know not, as all the bakeries were closed at that hour.  What a legend!!!

Vegetarian combination ($12) and Doro wot ($12)

The food is served in the traditional manner, in that a large platter is lined with injera bread and your choices dolloped on top.  You eat from the outside in, tearing off small pieces and using them almost like tongs to pinch a mouthful of hearty stew, before popping the whole morsel in your mouth.  From left to right, we have ater kik wot, a mild yellow split pea dal; atakilt wot, sautéed cabbage, cauliflower, and carrot; hot misir wot, spicy lentil stew cooked with berbere; shiro, chick pea flour cooked with berbere; mild misir wot, brown lentils cooked in gentle spices; and the star of the show - doro wat, chicken cooked to melting tenderness, in a sauce of berbere and onions, rendered unctuous through hours of long, slow cooking.  The meat fell from the drumstick like soft, fat petals.  Each dish was delicious, the flavours discrete, and just the right amount of chilli to keep it interesting.

Have you ever gone out with a group of people - perhaps new colleagues or some sort of committee you are on - and there's that kind of uncomfortable rattling of the menus where you all wonder if you know each other well enough to say, "Hey, let's share a few things?"  That's one lovely thing about Ethiopian food - it really encourages sharing.  The great thing about Lalibela is that they are not shy about serving their food in the traditional manner on a communal platter.  I do love food traditions where you share food in this way, both figuratively and literally.  By necessity, you must sit closer together, and you develop a kind of subconscious harmony where your hands never collide over the same tasty morsel.  When the meal ends, you have shared more than just food.

I just had to take a pic of this.  This dais was carefully arranged with traditional instruments and coffee ceremony implements - a little shrine to the home country.  Yet from above, a Western Bulldogs souvenir poster looks on.  You just know you're in Footscray, on so many levels.

Café Lalibela
91 Irving St, Footscray (map)
Phone: 9687 0300
Fully licensed

Cafe Lalibela on Urbanspoon


  1. Cafe Lalibela was where I popped my Ethiopian cherry too! You'll have to educate me on the more advanced eateries in the area when I move Westside.

    And how good is the St George beer!?

    Cravings for injera now...

  2. Awesome. This is on my hit list. Let me know if you are going again.

  3. I'm hanging out to try some Ethiopian food. Especially since I tried some injera bread last week. Oh my goodness, how good is that bread, like a pillow! My mouth was watering when I read about your meal.

  4. Cafe Lalibela was my first Ethiopian here in Melbourne, and coincidentally shares the name with my first-ever Ethiopian experience in Tempe, Arizona about 15 years ago. When we first went to Footscray's Cafe Lalibela about 5 (?) years ago, the place honestly was a bit shabby--but they have picked up there game there. Now I am craving injera! BO BULLDOGS! :-)

  5. Ooops...meant to say they've picked up THEIR game THERE. I hate seeing that error---musta been tired! So, yeah--the first couple of times we went, there were stains on the tablecloths, etc...but the last time we went (more than a year ago, sheesh), it was a lot better... We have enjoyed a couple of meals at Harambe, as well.

  6. cloudcontrol - the St George is great! I love all Ethio beers. African Town have a good selection. We can go built our Ethio street cred togetha when you move westside!

    penny - Will let you know :) I am still looking for an absolute fave, though. Lalibela is good but I am curious what else is out there.

    deb - I can't believe you haven't had Ethiopian yet!! Go, go now!!

    Kurichan - from one grammar stickler to another! I have had a few good meals at Harambe, always the buffet on Saturday night, but they are always running low and never refill the pots. Their food is really good, though, so maybe I just need to elbow my way in there at 6pm.

  7. Interesting. I have never eaten an Ethiopian meal! Time to change!!


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