L alibela is a small town in Northern Ethiopia recognized for its religious significance and beautiful architecture. It’s also the name of New Haven’s only Ethiopian restaurant, which gives that exotic, far-away land a welcome outpost in New Haven and in our bellies.
Lalibela (the town) is known most for its 12th- and 13th-century monolithic Orthodox Christian churches. As legend has it, the structures were commissioned by King Lalibela and built by workers who chiseled the stone from the top down, explains Shilmat Tessema, chef at the restaurant, which she co-owns with her husband Wubheh. Shilmat, who is from Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa, explains that the pair have tried to recreate some of the magic of the town and its famed churches.
Indeed, like its namesake, the Temple Street eatery is a striking place. Bursts of color adorn the stark white walls at balanced intervals, and a rich, dark, ornate ceiling presides above, eventually giving way to a large skylight in the back of the spacious main dining room.
Those bursts of color are composed of a mix of paintings and other works by Ethiopian artists, as well as wood-framed, backlit arched details giving off an amber glow. There are also several photographs of the churches themselves, along with depictions of famed Ethiopian leaders and legendary characters.
The feel is at once calm and spirited, and so is the dinner menu, which offers vibrant traditional fare, including a substantial array of vegetarian and vegan dishes alongside beef, lamb, chicken and seafood offerings. Tessema explains that berbere—an eclectic mix of spices including ginger, nutmeg (ahem!), coriander, cloves and a number of others—is a signature ingredient in authentic Ethiopian food and appears often at Lalibela.
Perhaps the most memorable feature of Ethiopian cuisine is injera, a spongy bread made primarily from a native Ethiopian grain called teff, which is used as a vessel for scooping up the food. At Lalibela, it’s prepared in the traditional round flatbread form, then sliced into strips, rolled up and served in a bread basket (see second picture above). If you’re gluten-free, fear not; Shilmat says that Lalibela’s kitchen will prepare non-glutinous injera for those who call ahead to request it. Utensils are available if you want them, of course, but the injera experience is worth a try. Besides making eating a highly tactile and communal (and fun) process, the bread is just the right consistency to soak up and hold the flavorful stews coming out of the kitchen.
The Yemisir Wat, for instance, features lentils slowly cooked in a complex and pleasing blend of spices, and plenty of sauce to go with all that injera. Tessema tells me that within the vegetable section of the menu, the Fosolia—green beans, carrots and onions sautéed with herbs (pictured above in the foreground)—is a favorite among customers, many of whom are, in fact, vegetarians seeking out the restaurant because of its wide range of tasty meatless options.
Omnivores will delight in the rest of the menu as well, from the very mild, to the decidedly not so: the Gored Gored is marinated beef served with a spicy red pepper paste which is likely to satisfy particularly adventurous eaters. The Doro Wat, chicken cooked with butter, onions, berbere and other seasonings, is a popular and moderately spicy dish, while the Doro Alicha is also buttery chicken but in a more mild presentation.
Combination plates come in handy for those who enjoy variety or who are undecided (and there’s a good chance of that if it’s your first time). Customers can choose four dishes for a platter and can scale up the order to be shared by two or more people at a slight discount per person. Individual entrees are all moderately priced, with most vegetable dishes ringing in at $10 or $11, and the meat-based entrees a dollar or two more. Most appetizers—like the salad of beets, potatoes, carrots, shallots and green peppers with house dressing—are a very reasonable $4.95.
The wine menu is also reasonably priced (with all bottles under $30), and it even occasionally advises as to which glasses or bottles go best with the dishes being ordered. Having spicy food? Try the Moscato from California or the Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile, it says.
Wine isn’t the only thing that accompanies meals at Lalibela. On Saturday nights, jazz pianist Charlie Sutton, an American who spent time living in Ethiopia as well as playing with Ethiopian musicians (including during an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show), plays old favorites and takes requests. It’s a good occasion to sit back with a glass of Ethiopian honey wine or beer, or a pot of Ethiopian coffee served in the traditional style: strong and in small mugs.
Ultimately, Lalibela is meant to be a place to share good food and good company. “We want people to talk and relax,” says Tessema, to feel at home as they’re transported to a faraway land.
176 Temple St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 12-2pm, Sat 12-3pm (lunch buffet); Sun-Thurs 5-10pm, Fri-Sat 5-11pm (dinner)
Written by Cara McDonough.