R5 The Spice of Seduction

The lure of Lalibela, Mount Kisco’s new Ethiopian restaurant, is like that of a whisper: you must be quiet and lean forward to hear it. This restaurant’s subtlety is a relief from many Ethiopian restaurants, which try so hard to evoke Africa that they might as well be serving food in a museum diorama. Lalibela’s ochre walls and photos of Ethiopian villages are quieter reminders of its geographic inspiration and offer a warm, refreshing change from the ugly bricks of South Moger’s pedestrian walkway.

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Lalibela is challenged to be the first Ethiopian restaurant in Westchester, and, wisely, it succeeds by keeping its menu simple and informative. You’ll learn that teff, the fermented grain behind the flat sourdough bread injera (which does triple duty as Ethiopian food, fork, and plate), is both attractively low in gluten and high in protein. Still disoriented? You’ll read that Ethiopian cuisine is defined by two heady spice combinations: berbere (ginger, garlic, rue berries, allspice, black peppercorns, and salt) and mimita (African birdseye chilis, cardamom, cloves, and salt). Handily, you can find either spice mix listed in many of Lalibela’s dish descriptions, and, to bring it all home, down drops a dish of bread and berbere dipping sauce while you’re reading.

Starters at Lalibela almost feel like gateway Ethiopian foods, familiar in their essentials yet exotic enough to seem different. Delicious timatin fitfit (olive-oil-laced shreds of injera tossed with chopped tomato, red onion, and green pepper) has all the pleasure of a great pico de gallo, albeit haunted by an unexpected, but tasty, pepper. Similarly, avocado salad with tomato and red onion could almost pass for guacamole, though a murmur of ajwain peppercorns leave it feeling refreshingly different. Large, samosa-like sambusas (or crisp pastry triangles stuffed with well-spiced ground beef or lentil fillings) are Lalibela’s only hot appetizers; they make delicious, filling choices for heartier appetites.

Mains, and some starter salads, are served on large rounds of the spongy, tangy injera. Additional rounds are also employed to convey morsels of food to the mouth. The eating technique is simple—wrap stew-y, saucy bites in a shred of injera and pass through lips—though, be warned, in the effort to keep your fingers clean, novices may ingest more injera than advisable. Additionally, Lalibela’s portions are generous—salads are better shared, and mains are sizable. This is a great restaurant to visit with groups of friends who don’t mind sharing plates of finger food. Three Ethiopian beer brands, including refreshing St. George, help to encourage conviviality and aid forgiveness for the inevitable dropped food. Other beers and wine are available.

If we are to believe Swedish Marcus Samuelsson on Top Chef, Ethiopian cuisine is dominated by two main techniques. These include long-stewed, curry-like wats and simpler, marinated-and-sautéed meats in tibs. There are more Ethiopian cooking styles, of course, and some are evident at Lalibela. You’ll find a steak tartare analog in kifto, mimita-spiced raw ground beef (also served rare, if you wish). Lalibela’s signature dish is a truly delectable doro wat, or bone-in chicken pieces stewed in a lushly murky sauce. We gave up trying to wrap the rue berry-stained chicken leg with injera, and simply dove in elbow deep. It arrives with a whole, hard-cooked egg (which adds a cakey counterpoint to this sensuously buttery dish). It’s a heady stew that speaks eloquently of spice trade and luxury. Yebag wat (lamb) and siga wat (beef) are equally tasty, if not as succulently juicy. Our favorite part of the wats was the sauce-soaked injera lying beneath.

While there are many highs at Lalibela, there are some lows. Vegetable dishes, like gomen (collard greens with ginger and garlic); cabbage (with potato, carrots, onion, garlic, ginger, and turmeric); and frosolia (green beans, potato, carrots, onion, garlic, and ginger) generally taste boiled-out and dull. These were consistent losers with my dining partners.

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Wise newbies opt for Lalibela’s samplers, which offer an introduction to wats and tibs without forcing a commitment. They’re available in both vegetarian and meat versions, and include a variety of sides. Besides beef, lamb, and doro wats, the carnivorous sampler includes gomen besiga, a cabbage-heavy dish sporting a few unfortunately dry, tight morsels of beef. Vegetarians are welcome at Lalibela, as are their fundamentalist brethren, vegans. Misir (split lentils) or shiro (split peas) wats—both cooked in berbere, ginger, garlic, and olive oil—offer rich, spice-filled protein. The vegan Lalibela sampler includes both preparations, as well as that sad trio of vegetable dishes (as does the carnivorous sample). For conservative diners who may have been dragged to Lalibela, there is a mimita-spiced kifto burger served with French fries.

Desserts at Lalibela are not made in-house, and include an off-message roundup of ice cream, tiramisu, and pie. Best was a soggy baklava, though savvy diners should skip this course for rich Ethiopian coffee, served with a flourish at Lalibela. (In Ethiopia, coffee is specially toasted and brewed. It’s part of a hospitable, everyday ritual, analogous to a Japanese tea service.) For those sensitive to caffeine—and Lalibela’s coffee does not come decaffeinated—chai-like spiced teas and tisanes make a viable option.

Lalibela deftly accomplishes a tricky feat: it introduces an exotic cuisine while making timid palates comfortable. This restaurant’s service is earnest and pleasant, and, though modestly appointed, its digs are welcoming. We know that we’ll be heading back soon to be warmed by Lalibela’s spice-scented breezes.

Lalibela ★★ ★

37 S Moger Ave, Mount Kisco
(914) 864-1343
Hours: Tues and Wed 11:30 am–9:30 pm, Thurs and Fri 11:30 am–10:30 pm, Sat noon–10:30 pm, Sun noon–9:30 pm, closed Mondays.
Appetizers: $7-$8; entrées: $9-$22; desserts: $4.50.

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★★★★—Outstanding ★★★—Very Good
★★—Good ★—Fair

Injera bread serves as both plate and fork for some of the starter salads, including timatin fitfit (center) and avocado salad.

Photo by Cathy Pinsky

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