Cuisine: Somali with Ethiopian and other influences
5786 Columbus Square (near intersection of SR 161/East Dublin-Granville Road Cleveland Avenue)
Open: Monday-Thursday, 11am – 10pm, Friday 11am to 11pm, Saturday 9am to 11pm, Sunday 9am to 9pm
Breakfast from 9am to noon on Saturday and Sunday
(Reader warning: There is a long lead in to the meat of the story.)
The aim of alt eats is to make connections. We want to connect you with new cultures, cuisines, areas of the city, and ultimately, the people behind the counter and in the kitchen. The stories of the people that make the food are often as important as the food they create.
Food has a way of bringing people together. Taco Drew met CMH Gourmand at a beer tasting via Columbus Underground. CMH Gourmand met Hungry Woolf at a North Market cooking class. The three of us went on to join Slow Food Columbus. Then we created Taco Trucks Columbus which introduced us to more people and places we would not have met any other way. It seems each person we meet or tweet with or e-mail, adds to the melting pot of alt eats with a restaurant lead, suggestion or feedback. Adding more people to the alt eats team has helped us spice up the content as well.
Food continues to connect us with new people. We met Abdi Roble from the Somali Documentary Project at a Social Media Conference. This prompted us to ask him to share a meal with us to help us better understand and appreciate Somali food and culture. We met with Abdi and his wife Fatima as well as Ismail, another acquaintance from the Somali Documentary Project for a meal. Fatima suggested a last minute change of venue which led us to the newly opened Solay Bistro.
Solay Bistro is located in the Columbus Square retail complex. This is a place the alt eats team often refers to as the United Nations of Columbus due to the diversity of ethnic eateries concentrated in this small commercial strip. Our party of seven included two Somalis, a Kenyan, a Hungry (British) Woolf, a Boston based vegetarian and two native Ohioans. All of us have had an extensive range of world wide eating expertise. Solay was able to meet and exceed each person’s varied dietary needs.
The bistro opened on May 22nd and is still tweaking their menu and hours. The restaurant is alternative even by alt eats standards. The cuisine is a fusion of Somali and Ethiopian with some other African twists. Nadira Abdirahman, the owner and chef previously operated a vegetarian and organic cafe on the OSU campus. She aims to provide local and in-season organic vegetables on her menu whenever possible. Her daughter is starting a small garden in urban Columbus with the intention of having some of the produce end up in the Solay kitchen. This approach and some of the resulting cuisine clearly veers away from what most people might expect walking through the door.
Solay Bistro may be the most inviting of all alt.eats offerings to date. The menu has something to offer all types of eaters: carnivores, vegetarians and with an item or two even for a vegan. There is ample, well lit parking in the front. The location is easy to find and get to from any part of Columbus. The decor is colorful and updated. Tables and chairs are new and comfortable with room to seat up to 100 people. At many places we write about there is often the option for readers to think “Yes, I would like to go there but…..”, but what? At Solay we could find no excuses to keep you from walking through the door.
The name Solay comes from a word used to describe a specific way to cook meat common to the area of Somalia Nadira hails from. We began our meal staring at the Raw Mango Lassie Ismail was sipping on while waiting for us to arrive. It looked refreshing on a hot, humid day and Ismail was visibly enjoying it. The Lassie consisted of fresh almond milk, mango pulp, orange juice and vanilla. Several members of our international band of eaters ordered this beverage to unanimous delight. We also tried the Banana Nut Lassi (very good) and Somali tea (our tea lovers seemed enthralled). We did not try the Mango, Pineapple and Kale Smoothie (yes, kale) but based on our other satisfying beverage selections, I think we will add kale to the mix during round two at the Solay table. Also of note, Stauf’s coffee is on the menu.
We tried all three of the appetizers: Hummus, Sambusa and Bajiya. Each one was good with the sambusa perhaps being the best of the bunch. We enjoyed the fresh, light, flaky outer pastry shell of the sambusa as well as the fresh green peas and seasoned potatoes in the filling.
In between courses, we also had a serving of Somali and Kenyan culture. We had an opportunity to speak with Abdi and Ismail about the Somali Documentary Project as well as their own immigration stories. Fatima is from Kenya so we benefited from her perspective on everything as both an insider to African culture and as an adapter to Somali culture and cuisine. Nadira also shared her knowledge of the cuisine she was cooking for us. To say that we felt welcome would be an understatement. And to say we learned a lot and were humbled by some of the stories shared with us can not be overstated.
We moved on to our entrees. While goat is said to be the most consumed meat the the world, we find it underrepresented and under appreciated in the capital city. Therefore, we seek out and consume goat at any opportunity provided. We tried goat in roasted form (as seen above). Other entrees sampled included KK (an alt eats default at any Somali restaurant because we are on a quest for the best of this dish), a mixed platter (a meat and two vegetable based dishes) and the green lentils (cooked with tomatoes, cilantro, onions and garlic) which were vegetarian tested and very much vegetarian and carnivore approved. We also sampled a stew - suqaar, with veal. The stew is cooked with onion, tomatoes, jalapeno, garlic, cilantro as well as an assortment of other special herbs and spices. This scored highly with our group as well.
We shared our food with each other sampling much of what was on the menu. Abdi told us that rice is a staple dish in Somalia and the default meal at lunch time, so how a restaurant cooks their rice is an indicator of how the rest of the meal may go. He found the rice very much to his satisfaction.
We sampled two of the common breads of the country. Anjeero is a spongy flat bread common to all Ethiopian restaurants. It is used as a utensil to pick up and consume the food on your plate, it also serves as the liner of your plate. Anjeero seems to have the ability to expand to four times the original size once it is in your stomach ensuring that you are stuffed after your meal. We found the Solay anjeero to be a bit more mild and less tangy than anjeera we have tried elsewhere. We like this very much. (You can see some in the photo below).
Saabyat/sabaya is a grilled, flour based flat bread that has an essence of doughy, Italian style pizza crust to it. We liked this as well and I was sad to leave some behind. You can see this included with the meal pictured beneath this sentence.
There are some other items on the menu we did not try but deserve a mention, especially if it serves as an inducement for one or all of our readers to try these and report back. There is a strong Italian influence in Ethiopia and Somalia so Solay has pastas on the menu which our server said were his favorite. The vegetarian section includes an almond butter, banana and jelly sandwich on multi-grain bread as well as a veggie burger. Hmm, a possible carnivore’s delimena on those veggie choices. The breakfast/brunch menu features the traditional Midwest breakfast classics but with two outliers: crepes and anjeero baked with honey, nutmeg and cinnamon.
By the middle of the meal, we had decided that we would be back. At the beginning of the meal, we decided that one meal with Abdi would not be enough so we look forward to having him and his entourage as future guests at any table to help us sample, explore and learn about Somali culture and cuisine. Our connection with Abdi connected us to an unexpected new restaurant.
It takes a village to write alt eats (all photos in this post are via Hungry Woolf). Each place is visited by two or more of us with friends in tow. We take photos, scribble notes, ask questions, share our opinions and our dishes with each other while trying to engage as much as possible with the people behind the counter and the cooks in the kitchen. Learning a menu is one thing, discovering and appreciating new cultures and cuisines is another. This is a task that can not be done alone, the more the merrier…. and better too.
We need your help as well. Give us feedback and tips on new places. Try out these eateries and welcome these newcomers to our city and country to their new home. Abdi shared with us that it takes the average immigrant seven years to be invited into a native’s home. That is a little too long to meet our neighbors. Food connects people. It is a bridge, so we think that we are building that bridge a little stronger with each new post and new friend.