Tel: +44 (0)20 7284 0600
Address: 137 Fortress Road, NW5
Cuisine Type: Ethiopian
Tufnell Park (NORTHERN)
The smell is the first thing that hits you – a scent that is at once familiar yet difficult to put your finger on, both pleasant yet strangely cloying, pervasive and almost palpable as wisps of smoke, lending an air of mystique to the already intriguing establishment that is Lalibela.
This Ethiopian restaurant is cluttered with an eclectic mix of artefacts – dried animal skins, strings of beads, murals, earthenware pots and woven baskets, some verging on the macabre: a life-sized mannequin dressed in traditional dress lit from below to give it a ghoulish appearance looks down on one of the tables as you eat. Even the furniture seems to have been thrown together in a random fashion. Normal height tables matched with huge carved wooden chairs tower above a number of low tables, where diners stoop over their food on small almost backless chairs.
Our sense of bewilderment continued when we surveyed the plethora of dishes on the menu, but fortunately our charming waiter came to the rescue. Friendly and informed, he guided us through the choices, and won our trust so implicitly that we ordered all his personal recommendations.
We skipped starters in favour of the more exotic sounding mains (£7-9). Begh Wot, a stew of lamb flavoured with berbere, an Ethiopian blend of spices; Fresh Fish Tibs, the house speciality of tilapia marinated in rosemary and lemon, fried with peppers, onions and tomato; Miser Wot and Alicha Wot, fiery hot lentils served with a separate portion of contrasting but complementing mild and creamy split peas; and Chicken with Spinach – the Ronseal of our selection – appeared as stated on the menu, and while tasty, was less intriguing than the others.
Spoonfuls of each dish are arranged on a communal plate and mopped up by hand with injera, a traditional flatbread served cold and rolled up, such that it resembled a pile of slightly grubby flannels. The sour taste and spongy texture made it rather disconcerting on its own, but spices in the main dishes mask the underlying flavour. Accompanied by Castell Export Ethiopian beer, the meal was novel both for the tastebuds and in the communality of the experience (don’t go with people you wouldn’t be happy to have touch your food!).
Desserts, by contrast, were limited, so we settled for coffee. The beans are roasted in a small pan, and brought to your table, still steaming. They are taken away again to be ground, and the finished product is served in a quaint teapot, with tiny cups and a burning nugget of frankincense (the source of the smell that accosted us on first entering the room). The unique aroma of Ethiopian coffee brought the meal to a satisfying end, and at just over £50 For four, there is no nasty aftershock either.