Palate Intrigue

Palate Intrigue

There are nine vegetarian entrees at Lalibela, the Ethiopian place on Temple Street, and it turns out you can try at least eight of them at once. Just order a double of the Lalibela Vegetarian Combo (usually $17.95 for four selections), then tell your server which of the nine to leave out—in my case, the Zucchini option (I’ve never been a fan of that ingredient).

Dining alone at an off-hour, I didn’t wait five minutes before a spread resembling a palette arrived bearing porous injera daubed with rich umbers, dappled jades, soft ivories and sunny yellows. A readier supply of the thin, spongy, sour staple bread was spooled and piled into a basket on the side. You can use the injera as a brush, dragging it through the colors and then straight into your mouth, or you can use it, more neatly, as a canvas, wielding a fork to carefully paint the bread before gobbling it up.

I did some of both, starting with the Yemisir Wot: a Martian-red pool of lentils slow-cooked in a berbere sauce. Soft, hearty, savory and sweet, the final impression was beautifully spicy—a contrast to the neighboring Ater Kik, whose cadmium yellow split peas were gently earthy and sweet and served al dente. Far sweeter was the Fosolia with tender carrots, chewy green beans and near-transparent onions, the latter maybe responsible for a potent caramelized note. The Gomen, too, had a mysterious element, delivering a great bitter chew I expect from collards and a brininess I don’t. The Kosta, meanwhile, featured expectedly briny spinach and large, supple jewels of potato, and the Misir Alicha, a green lentil stew, was bright and vegetal with a trace of mint and an umami finish.

The Tikel Gomen, a crunchy, electric-yellow cabbage and potato hash unfortunately missing the potato, was mildly sweet with a linger that strayed too far into buttery richness for me. But the bigger disappointment was the Shuro—“highly seasoned chickpeas in a savory sauce,” according to the menu, which a photo Lalibela posted online seems to confirm. I received something else: a semi-gelatinous puddle with no chickpeas or any solid ingredients at all. It was, as the menu promised, savory (and spicy), but the texture was confusing and off-putting, as was the apparent absence of the star ingredient. And even if everything else about it had satisfied, the portioning—equal, maybe, to a few spoonfuls of broth—would’ve been hard to swallow.

Next time I’m feeling gluttonous enough to order a double Combo, I’ll replace those last two by doubling up on the Yemisir Wot or the Misir Alicha and giving the Zucchini, which also promises carrots, onions and “exotic” herbs, a chance. Ethiopian food is exotic in New Haven, with Lalibela now the only dedicated African restaurant inside city limits, and a chance is exactly what its unique flavors and textures deserve.

Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant & Bar
176 Temple St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Thurs 11:30am-10pm, Fri-Sat 11:30am-11pm, Sun 5-10pm
(203) 789-1232
www.lalibelact.com

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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