869 Bloor Street West, Toronto, ON M6G 1M4, Canada
Web: Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant
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Canada Desserts Ethiopian Toronto
It's not that Western New York specifically needs Toronto's Lalibela Restaurant or Canada's BeaverTails chain of pastry shops - you probably haven't heard of either of them before, and might never do so again. But this area would really benefit from what they represent: a good Ethiopian restaurant, and a signature, home-grown dessert that isn't served out of a box or bag. Foodie-in-Chief President Obama went out of his way to try BeaverTails when he came to its home city Ottawa in 2009, and as one might guess from his visit to Duff's last year, great things happen when a really noteworthy place makes a national or international name for itself - and when a foreign cuisine becomes available in a major city. Let's see what makes Lalibela and BeaverTails worth considering, shall we?
Let's get the old stereotype out of the way for those of you who haven't tried Ethiopian food before: you're not going to walk away from an Ethiopian meal starved with hunger. The typical meal is based on two elements: piles of wonderfully seasoned meat and/or vegetables, and a soft, spongy bread called Injera. Think of Injera like a huge, thick crepe with a light sourdough flavor and you'll have the right idea.
You pull off bite-sized pieces of the Injera and use them to pinch the meat or vegetables, then pop the mix into your mouth together. Entrees are often served on top of a large piece of Injera, which can then be enjoyed - complete with soaked-in sauce - when you've finished the items on top. Lalibela's Injera was some of the best we've had: ever so slightly sour rather than bland, warm rather than lukewarm or cold, and huge. There was more than enough to go around, and two combination platters would have been enough to serve our group of four. (We over-ordered.)
In the foreground of this picture is the rich red-colored Kitfo, which can be ordered in the traditional raw, minced beef form (as shown) or cooked for the squeamish. Most items are cooked such that the soft meat is ready to fall off the bone, as with the curried chicken leg in the foreground here. The flavors at Lalibela generally weren't as strong as at other Ethiopian restaurants we've visited, which would make it a good place for spice-sensitive diners, and possibly some first-timers to visit.
Combination plates give you an opportunity to sample a bunch of different Ethiopian dishes, often including four or five items. The plates are huge, and set up with a mirror of the same items on each side so that two people can share them without reaching over the center. This Meat Combination Platter has a salad at the center - just plain lettuce with tomatoes and feta cheese, and not something that's commonly found in the middle of most such combination meals. Again, it's a fine thing to include as comfort food for people who aren't familiar with Ethiopian cuisine. The Mama's Platter included five vegetarian dishes, notably some tasty spicy lentils, and a really nice Asa Wat - spiced grilled fish with a tomato base - which would have been great on its own.
Called "Titanic Tibs" (or Tibbs, as this menu put it), this boat-shaped bowl of lamb riblets tasted broiled at Lalibela, but can be served grilled or sauteed. It's most commonly spicy and somewhat chewy; here, it was served with modest marination and some bones still in the meat, alongside a sweet and spicy dipping sauce - not quite like what we've had (and loved) elsewhere. More Injera and some sliced French bread were on the plate, too.
While Lalibela wouldn't be at the top of our Ethiopian list on pure food quality, the prices were reasonable - large platters in the $15-$22 range, which is fair given the quantity of food - and both the service and venue were above average given our experiences at other Ethiopian restaurants. Friendly servers were nearly as prompt and attentive as could be given the time (think 20-30 minutes on average) the dishes take to prepare, and the bar-like setting was clean, reasonably sized to accommodate 60 or so people at a time, and not particularly noisy, though not decked out with the Ethiopian decor we're accustomed to seeing. Though it's one of many Ethiopian restaurants in the same area of Toronto, only a few blocks away from others that are said to be better, we'd call it a good enough place to start the exploration of this highly compelling cuisine.
BeaverTails. Viewed most cynically, BeaverTails (BeaverTails web site) are little more than county fair food - fried dough with your choice of toppings. But the execution of this particular variant leverages a part of one of Canada's icons (the beaver, eh?) to create something memorable, a hot, flat surface that can be customized with anything from sliced apples and cinnamon to maple butter or chocolate hazelnut topping. Over the years, BeaverTails has expanded from just a few flavors to a larger menu of nine current versions. It also uses photos of kids coated in the sticky afterglow of its products as fun, effective advertisements.
The version we sampled this weekend at the Toronto Zoo was the Apple Cinnamon ($6), which didn't look quite as amazing as the three-toned version in BeaverTails' photographs, but tasted delicious anyway. We didn't mind that the glazed and sliced apples likely came from a can, or that the cinnamon-crusted dough was as common as could be; the dessert's sweet and fruity flavors just worked together in the way that any danish would, only hotter and therefore seemingly fresher.
Though Buffalo has its own share of semi-indigenous desserts - and we're certainly fans of Sponge Candy - it doesn't have an iconic dessert item that's served hot and fresh. Someone around here has to be up to the task of inventing and popularizing such a thing, leveraging local tastes and symbolism at least as well as BeaverTails do. Any thoughts? Share your comments on our Facebook page or Twitter feed!