East Africa Restaurant is a new-ish homestyle hole-in-the-wall on Sherbrooke next to the Caribbean restaurant, Ma’s Place, and down the road from some tasty Middle Eastern options. So in a, maybe, three block stretch you can take a gustatory tour of the world. That was maybe not the intent, but the low rent and high traffic density have created a loyal following for this tiny restaurant with a cute terrasse and home-cooked Ethiopian food. Come winter they’ll have their work cut out for them to keep patrons inside, where a handful of tables create a cramped and dark atmosphere (“cosy”?), but there’s nothing quite like sharing a giant platter of fermented sponge-y bread with warm, soul-satisfying meat and veggie stews – nutmeg, cardamom, berbere, turmeric, ginger, garlic, and a little chili – to take lowly lentils, potatoes, carrots, collard greens, and tough cuts of meat and turn them into slow-cooked satisfaction. You can’t beat the prices here. A lunch special enough to feed two people goes for $6 and for dinner one very, very, very hungry person couldn’t finish the $11 veg mixed platter on their own except under gun point and at the risk of an upset stomach, which would be a shame, because leftovers/breakfast of this food is an amazing alternative.
In Toronto there are a whole lot more Ethiopian restaurants, and I’ve eaten at a good few of them. The downfalls are generally:
1. Too much oil or butter.
2. Pre-ground spices instead of whole, freshly-ground ones
3. Food that’s been sitting in pots or dishes waiting to be reheated for too long since it takes a long time to actually cook it from scratch (if your meal comes in under 10 minutes you’re in trouble).
4. Too much salt or powdered broths with preservatives used for flavour.
Ethiopian food is not light. It seems all healthy since there are generally so many vegetables involved, but it’s a cow-heavy country, and oil and butter are used generously when available. It’s similar to Indian but with different spices and different flours. Berbere is a basic blend that differs from restaurant to restaurant (unless they use a pre-made blend…) and adds the classic red tinge to lentils and meats. The amount of heat may vary. Teff bread (injera) can also differ from restaurant to restaurant. The injera is a fermented kind of sourdough traditionally made from an ancient grain, but often mixed or made only with wheat flours because of their ready availability on this side of the world. It’s rolled out thin like a pancake/crepe with bubbles and used as both a utensil and a plate to scoop up the different foods placed directly on it. It should taste slightly sour, but can end up being more or less sour depending on the amount of time the natural yeasts spent fermenting (you can also use commercial yeasts, just like other kinds of sourdough breads versus a basic yeasty baguette or loaf. This speeds up the process and makes the bread rise better. You also have less chance of contamination with unwanted bacteria, but it’s the natural bacteria and the flavour of the water used that give the bread a unique flavour).
So how did East Africa do on my Ethiopian restaurant scale? Very well!
I split the vegetarian platter, so can only judge their veggie dishes, but everything was actually made with care – the big heap of red lentils in the middle of the platter weren’t overly-softened as though they’d been sitting around for awhile, and the salad of chopped tomatoes actually had a lemony punch to it instead of just yet-more-bland-oil. The potatoes were a little mushy since they hadn’t been pre-fried (yay less oil, but boo no texture) but the carrots soaked up the sweetness of the rich spice blend. And by “spicy” I don’t mean hot. Nothing here was overly hot. Definitely not the al dente cauliflower and yellow lentil dish. Definitely not the collard greens, that were a little bland but slimy and delicious. It’s simple food, but you’d have a lot of work ahead of you make all of them for a single meal at home. It’s always most interesting to see the amount and variety of spices used – less ginger in the gomen (spinach), less berbere and less heat in the mesir wat (red lentils), and ample extra injera for unwrapping and wrapping. The platter even comes sort of divided in two so that even though you’re sharing, there’s a heap of almost each dish on both sides so you’re not reaching a long way across the enormous platter to reach your favourite item. It’s mostly done this way so the red lentils can be in the centre and then certain areas around it don’t look empty, probably, but it’s a nice touch.
And the service is friendly. There’s one unisex bathroom downstairs that feels a bit like descending into a pit, but that can be fixed. Food made with love and a beautiful summer evening make for a delicious meal. Add a million and one flavours and you’ll be happy. It’s even cheaper than most of the greasier Indian places in the area. Not something to eat everyday, maybe, but that’s why I’m going to write up the recipe I did for gomen (spinach) – so you can make a few things at home. The injera might be a bit of a stretch…but leftovers work well!
East Africa Restaurant
5893 Sherbrooke West, Notre-Dame-de-Grace, Montreal
Open from 11am daily