By M. H. REED, NYT
LUCKY Mount Kisco has snagged the rarest of rare in Westchester County — an Ethiopian restaurant — and it’s a honey. The food at Lalibela is rich and delicious.
Many Ethiopian dishes call for braising or stewing, which no doubt accounts for the distinctive, well-married flavors characteristic of this cuisine, as well as for its pleasingly yielding textures. Tastes are soothing yet exotic, provided largely by berbere or by mitmita, which are, the menu explains, two compound powders ground from various chili peppers and other spices. Other additions to a dish might be onions, green pepper, fresh ginger or turmeric, depending on which combination best suits chicken, lamb, beef or vegetables.
Ethiopian-style dining has long been and still is a communal, ritualized affair. Portions come carefully arranged on a large round central tray lined with injera, a flat disk of spongy bread. Injera is not only the bread and the plate, but also the knife, spoon and fork. Simply tear off a piece of injera and use it to pinch up the food. As a meal ends, the injera will have soaked up some of the stew juices, turning it into a delicious final nibble.
Conventional utensils are available on request, but that would ruin the fun. Forget that don’t-play-with-your-food rule. Eating with gusto shows appreciation and respect for what has been served, and sometimes swiftness is necessary to maneuver food from tray to mouth.
Swiping through an Ethiopian meal is not always a dainty operation, and clean hands are a necessary courtesy. Although the rest rooms supply plenty of soap and water, my companions and I wished that wipes furnished after the dinner had also been offered before. But that is one of our few complaints about this hospitable place.
Putting together a meal here is easy. Three or four selections will easily serve two diners. Except for a dry, tasteless hamburger and the beef in pastry (sambusa), offerings were up to the mark, so it’s hard to go wrong — from fresh-tasting salads, like chopped avocado and timatim fitfit to chunky doro wat, a Lalibela “signature dish” that includes a chicken drumstick, spiced butter and a hard-boiled egg. And a few vegetable dishes are very much worth including. Smooth-cooked split lentils with sweated onion and tumeric nicely complement a beef or a lamb stew, as does cabbage cooked with aromatic vegetables. When in doubt, order a combination plate like Taste of Lalibela, which includes a sampling of four meat and three vegetable dishes.
Most diners will find spicing subtle and mild. We watched a diner at another table who obviously likes it hotter mix in awaze, a slightly tart chili pepper condiment that comes to every table. Approach with caution; the stuff is dynamite.
In our eagerness to try so many other interesting offerings, we missed kitfo, a kind of steak tartare of chopped prime beef mixed with spiced butter and mitmita — a dish prized by many Ethiopians. Tradition has it served raw, but most kitchens will give the meat a very quick stir in a pan. I look forward to trying the Lalibela version on my next visit to this refreshingly different restaurant, which is something of a Westchester pioneer.
With Lalibela and the already established Persian restaurant Shiraz signaling a trend toward more culinary adventures in this county, can Afghan or Vietnamese restaurants be far behind?
37 South Moger Avenue
THE SPACE Attractive photos of Ethiopian sites punctuate sand-colored walls in this modest storefront restaurant, which seats about three dozen. Wheelchair accessible.
THE CROWD Mostly casually dressed adults. Gracious, helpful service. Can get noisy at peak moments.
THE BAR Seats six and is licensed for a complete stock of liquors, but currently only beer ($6, American, Jamaican, Ethiopian) and wine ($7 and $8 a glass) are available. Cold beer, like Meta, an Ethiopian lager, goes well with this food, as do cold fruity wines. Most of the wines on the short list run well under $33 a bottle.
THE BILL Lunch entrees, $9 to $12. Dinner entrees, $11 to $18. The Taste of Lalibela (seven meat and vegetable dishes), $22; vegetariancombination, $19. All come with injera bread.
WHAT WE LIKED Fresh vegetable salads (timatim fitfit, avocado), beef stew (siga wat), lamb stew (yebag wat), chicken stew with whole boiled egg (doro wat), lentil stews, string beans (fosolia) and cabbage with potato.
IF YOU GO Lunch: Tuesday to Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday, 4 to 9:30 p.m.; Thursday to Saturday, 4 to 10:30 p.m. Reservations are a good idea for groups of five or more. Limited street parking; large parking lot is accessible by a pedestrian walkway from South Moger Avenue.
RATINGS Don’t Miss, Worth It, O.K., Don’t Bother