Category Archives: African

Solay Bistro

Cuisine: Somali with Ethiopian and other influences

5786 Columbus Square (near intersection of SR 161/East Dublin-Granville Road Cleveland Avenue)
614.899.8800
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

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(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.

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Sabrina’s Cuisine


Cuisine: Somali / Kenyan
4212 Westview Center Plaza (just off Georgesville Road)
614.272.5592
Hours 10am-9pm daily

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Most of the Somali restaurants in Columbus are clustered near Cleveland Avenue, but there are 3 or 4 outposts on the West side of town. One of these is Sabrina’s. Tucked away off Georgesville Road, it is a small cafe run by a Somali family who made their way to Columbus via Kenya. Sabrina’s has a limited menu and seems part restaurant, part coffee shop.

Most of the menu is made up of seven appetizers, and those available (four on the day we visited) are displayed in a heated display case. We started with a mandhaazi, which we were told was a Kenyan speciality (the only one on the menu). A mandhaazi (above, right) is similar to a donut – a triangular fried bread, not really sweetened, and best, I’m sure, when both fresh and served with tea or coffee.


Next were bajiya which the menu describes as ’round stylish bean mash, mixed with saffron recipes and deep fried’. It seems that these are commonly made with black eye peas, but I am not sure what the bean was in this case. We were not able to detect the saffron but it seemed to contain some red pepper. It was reminiscent of falafel, but drier and would have benefitted from some sort of dip or chutney.

The sambusa’s were easily our favorite appetizer – crispy fried shells filled with shredded chicken, onion, and garlic and well spiced. According to the menu fillings vary and fish and meat sambusas are also available. I was a little disappointed not to be able to try the najakho (boiled egg enveloped in mashed potato).

As with other Somali restaurants we have found that the menu only loosely reflects what is available. The menu lists three main dishes: steak sub, chicken sub and baked chicken with rice, but we were told that we could have meat, chicken or fish with rice. We opted for the chicken with rice which also came with a small iceberg lettuce side salad and a banana. The chicken was extremely moist and heavily seasoned with black pepper and cardamon. The rice was also cooked with cardamon. We were also given a small dish of a green chili chutney. I found this simple dish satisfying but not overly exciting.

Sabrina’s is a sound but limited Somali option for west siders. As is usual with Somali cuisine, vegetarian dishes are not well represented, although the bajiya and mandhaazi were meatless.

Drelyse

Cuisine: Pan-African (Ghanaian, Senegalese, Tanzanian, Sierre Leone)
1911 Tamarack Circle
614.430.3350

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Having struck out on the first couple of places we intended to try last night, we didn’t have high hopes for Drelyse being open either. They clearly weren’t, going by the signage on the door, but the door wasn’t locked and people were inside so we thought we’d grab a to-go menu and continue on.

Sayid, the (co?)owner and husband of the chef, wasn’t going to let us go so easily. Clocking us for first-timers we were, he graciously invited us to sit and promised to feed us the ‘best African food in the city’.

Hey, why not?

We started off with some small bite ($1.00 each) sambusas, vitumbua, and a nem spring roll.

The sambusas (triangular pockets filled with beef and spice) were wrapped in a thin phyllo-like shell that was nicely fried.  The spicing was minimal, leaving the experience to be that of the crunch of the shell and the flavor of ground beef.

The vitumbua was more interesting – this traditionally Tanzanian breakfast food is something of a thick, bread-like rice patty made with coconut milk. Flavor was subtle when eaten alone – toasted crust of the exterior and just a hint of sweetness from the coconut were the main impressions – but when paired with the provided hot sauce it came into its own.

The nem was our favorite of the three and we wished we had ordered more than one. I believe they were made with pork and shrimp and seemed more Asian than African. They were really succulent and needed no accompaniment.

We were also given a taste of the beef peanut butter soup which was extremely hot (spice) with an intensely meaty broth.

As we finished these, our mains appeared – jollof rice with goat, okro (okra) stew with banku, and waakye (rice & beans) with chicken.

Waakye (pronounced watch-EH), we are told, is the national dish of Ghana.  It’s little more than rice and beans, and if our experience is any indication, comes to life based upon the sauces atop it.  The reddish sauce was similar to what came with the vitumbua.  The darker sauce was fascinating – it had a mild fishiness from crayfish, a bit of a nuttiness, and finished with a spicy bite.  It made the dish for me.  The chicken was what you’d hope for from a carefully prepared grilled chicken, and the hard boiled egg and pasta garnish were entirely as expected.

The jolof rice was a potently seasoned concoction – red pepper for sure, and more herbs and spices beyond that than I could even begin to discern.  Cooked with tomato, tomato paste, and sauteed onions, this was a pleaser.  The goat, served on-the-bone, was tender and flavorful.

Finally, we tried the okra stew with banku. Since banku is used in lieu of utensils, this dish is preceded by the washing of hands at the table using the pitchers and bowls seen above (they’re brought to the table, and the server pours water over your hands with the pitcher.)

The banku (top right) is curious stuff, essentially a ball of dough, but far less tacky.  Lacking the words to describe it myself, I’ll defer to the experts:

“Banku: Fermented corn/cassava dough mixed proportionally and cooked in hot water into a smooth whitish consistent paste.”

We tore off a few pieces, and used them to pinch a few morsels out of the stew.  Or, at least we tried to.

Let me pause for a moment, and reflect on the word mucilaginous, as it is a common characteristic of some African okra dishes. It, stripped of elaboration, basically means gooey.  In this case, very gooey – slimy, actually.  It also meant that the okra dish resisted the banku in the same way that oil resists water.

Our server looked on, amused, as our pinching motions squirted hunks of beef across the bowl.  Defeated, we reluctantly returned to forks and spoons… only to feel the sting of defeat once again.

The goo!  We pride ourselves on being adventurous eaters, and operate under the assumption that any traditional dish that is widely consumed by any culture must have some measure of accessibility for the open-minded. This one, though… it resisted our best attempts to suss out its hidden charms (because they were slathered in goo.)

Beyond the okra, though, we found the meal to be quite satisfying. Governor Strickland feels similarly, and has used Drelyse as a caterer for events at his mansion. Drelyse has a significant vegetarian offering – covered in more depth here – and service is extravagantly attentive.

Also worth noting – Drelyse is planning to open its patio soon.  Expect kebabs and other grilled dishes once this happens.

Lalibela

Cuisine: Ethiopian
1111 South Hamilton Road
614.235.5355

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You might, at first glance, take Lalibela for a Mexican cantina based on the exterior decor. Upon entering, pool tables and a large bar suggest little more than neighborhood watering hole.  Look (waaay) back to the right, though, and you’ll see a fairly large and ornately decorated dining area.  Beyond that lies a performance stage.

If the above, and the flyers at the entrance promoting DJs and musicians performing there, are any indication, Lalibela is something of a small entertainment hub geared towards our city’s Ethiopian population.

During lunch, though, it’s all about the food.  We settled on hot spicy lamb (lamb sauteed in jalapenos and spices) and quanta firfir (beef ‘jerky’ mixed with strips of injera in a sauce).

Every time we’ve had Ethiopian food, the presentation has never failed to impress.  Lalibela is no exception.  Both of our orders were served on a single large (probably close to 2′ in diameter) plate set within a covered woven basket.  The cover is removed (with a flourish) at the table by the server, and basket of injera strips is provided on the side.

A little bit about injera -it’s unusual stuff, and is an essential part of Ethiopian cuisine. It’s very thin, curious in its spongy texture and appearance, and is made from a flour/water mix that has been left to ferment so it has a sourdough-like tang to it. Injera is used as a ‘plate liner’ for most dishes (to sop up sauces from saucy foods above), in lieu of utensils (use strips of it to pinch food from the plate and bring it to the mouth), and is even occasionally mixed in with the dishes themselves (as with the quanta firfir).

The hot spicy lamb was pleasant enough – the lamb cubes were tasty (though perhaps a bit overdone), and the peppers, sauce, and onions rounded it out nicely.  Don’t take the name too seriously, though.  Our server went to great lengths to verify that we were OK with hot spicy food when we ordered this, but only the most meager hint of heat made it into the dish.

The quanta firfir was difficult to parse.  It seemed to have two different components from two different worlds.  The beef ‘jerky’, while conspicuously cured and dried, wasn’t especially tough (our server told us they cure and dry it in-house).  The flavor was spectacular – beefy, ‘woodsy’, nutty, and mushroom-like were just a few of the words used to describe it.  The injera and sauce, though, were puzzling as they seemed to almost cancel each other out, flavor-wise.

Another oddity was the tanginess of the injera provided on the side – it was far beyond that of any other injera we’ve tried.  Since you get some of it with each bite, this is more important than it might seem.  Perhaps we just got a bad batch?

Lalibela gets good buzz from the people we’ve talked with, and in spite of a few of the hiccups we encountered it’s easy to see why that might be.  At under $10/dish, it’s worth checking out if you’re in the area.

Vegetarians should be happy at Lalibela as there’s a significant meat-free offering.

Safari Coffee

Cuisine: Somali
3414 Cleveland Avenue
614.262.2811

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We visited Safari Coffee late on a “school night” which made the majority of the Somali portion of the drink menu off limits, as they were mostly caffeinated coffees and teas. This was just a small speed bump in experiencing the wares of the brightly-lit joint; while drinks were a no-no, desserts were totally okay. Which is good, because I like desserts.

Four unmarked desserts were available for my consumption, and as we were a small army of what our previous restaurant referred to as “Caucasians,” there was a high probability that we could try all in one sitting.

As far as ambiance goes, Safari Coffee, at the corner of Cleveland Ave. and Innis Rd., has the looks of many Somali places throughout the city: fluorescent lighting, a television showcasing Al Jazeera, bright colors and a very clean feel.

Throw in smoothies and all sorts of western soft drinks, and you have a comfortable stepping point into Somali cuisine for the cautious-yet-curious.

Two of the dessert offerings, pictured above, were quite “safe,” even for the non-adventurous. To the left is qumbe, a close relation to the macaroon. This moist bar cookie is made up of coconut, sugar, milk and flour. On the right is a lightly sweetened cookie, subtle in flavor and similar to a biscuit one might have with tea in England. The antithesis to overly-sweet American desserts, this cookie was a tiny bit dry, meant, of course, to go with the caffeinated drinks that I didn’t order.

And then there’s this. When I first saw it in the dessert case, I thought it looked like some sort of animal part – a liver or a heart, perhaps – served in a ziplock bag. I kept this opinion to myself and strongly lobbyed for someone else to order it, so that I could try it, yet not feel obligated to finish it. Halwa, as its called, is like a hardened jello without with gelatin. (Vegetarians, this dessert is likely safe!) The dish is made up of sugar, cornstarch, peanuts and spices like nutmeg, cardamom and saffron. I found that it tasted a little like ginger snaps, and nothing like animal parts.

And so. Somali food isn’t all just goat meat and unfamiliar spices, especially when you start with dessert.

Calanley Restaurant

Cuisine: Somali
3149 Cleveland Ave.
263-3530

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Having driven past Calanley quite a few times, we’ve always felt a vague sense of unease about the place based upon its exterior appearance – there’s just something foreboding about the windowless building.

This unease appeared to be mutual, at least at first – it seemed as though Calanley may have never served non-Somalis prior to our visit. We definitely sensed a bit of anxiousness initially.

Especially from the poor man at the counter… our presence seemed to completely blindside him. His job was to take our order, and he seemed frustrated by, at minimum, our shared inability to bridge the language divide.

Thankfully, frustration led to resourcefulness.  He tapped an English-speaking Somali customer for assistance, and called on an English speaking employee from the kitchen. With their help, everything came into focus.

Turns out that Calanley is primarily frequented by regulars – unsurprisingly, almost all Somali. These customers know the offering (and the language), so there is little use for a menu. An out-of-date English-language menu was searched for and found, though, and after a few tries we managed to select items off of it that were still currently being served.

We ordered the ‘chicken steak’, KK (kimis & kalaankal), and Ethiopian anjera with beef stew, and took our seat.  Complimentary bananas, juice, and bottled water came out shortly thereafter.

Calanley’s interior is basic, and the ambience was based largely around a television playing what appeared to be recordings of prayer ceremonies during the hajj.  This led us to recall that there was a separate exterior entrance for ‘families and ladies’ that opened into another smaller (closed off) dining room… we wondered if our female dining companion’s presence in the larger dining room might be causing distress.  We concluded that it probably wasn’t, at least if the remainder of our time there was any indication.

Our meals arrived quickly, and as seems to be the norm with Somali restaurants, portions were generous.  We tried the ‘chicken steak’ with rice first. This was very similar to African Paradise’s chicken preparation, which is to say it was cut into strips and similar to an Indian tandoori mixed with sauteed onions.  Roundly enjoyed.

Next, the KK.  In some of our early research, we came across a thread on a Somali web forum that discussed Somali food/restaurants in Columbus.  In it, Calanley was widely thought to be *the* place for KK.  Underneath the lettuce was kimis (thin strips of flat bread) and kalankaal (seasoned cubed beef) mixed together in a thick, tomatoey sauce. We found it to be enjoyable, but perhaps a bit less so than the chicken.

Finally, we tried the anjera with beef stew.  This was quite a spread – stew, salad, a wickedly spicy hot sauce, and a hard boiled egg, all atop a massive piece of anjera (also known as injera, a spongy Ethiopian flat bread).  The anjera seemed a bit on the mushy side, and the stew was fine if unexceptional… we probably wouldn’t build a return trip around it.

While we walked in to an atmosphere of concern at Calanley, we left to smiles.  We liked the place, and appreciated the efforts they went to in accommodating us.  Once we were able to express our interest in their food, everything else fell into place.  Suffice it to say that any cultural observations above (as with all cultural observations on this blog) are recounted solely for the purpose of providing practical insights for the uninitiated.

We were unable to evaluate the vegetarian friendliness of the offering due to the menu situation, but all dishes discussed contained meat, as seems to be the case with Somali cuisine more generally.  There was nothing posted to indicate halal preparations, but we’d wager it probably all is.

Banadir Cuisine

Cuisine: Somali
3246 Cleveland Avenue
(614) 268-0933
Hours: lunch & dinner (we didn’t see posted hours)

Click here to map it!

Subtitle: In Which We Learn About The Proper Time Of Day To Go Out For African Food

We entered the well-worn dining room of Banadir Cuisine to warm welcomes from the staff, and were promptly shown to our table. Baskets with utensils, napkins and complimentary bananas arrived with the menus.

The menus, here as in every other African restaurant we’ve been to, are notable for their bias towards lunchtime – that is to say, the lunch selection is usually 3-4 times larger than that of the dinner menu. A lot of the lunch items sounded awfully good, but so it goes… it’s dinner, we’re here, and we’re hungry.

We ordered the fish steak, beef steak, and the chicken suqar.  All of the dishes came with the option of jabati, rice, or spaghetti, and when we asked for jabati with the chicken suqar, our server offered to have it cut into slices and mixed it in with the dish, ‘K’ style.  Why not?

We also ordered tea (served with or without milk) and were given soup as part of the dinner order.  The tea, when ordered with milk, was chai flavored – similar to African Paradise’s offering but (mercifully) less aggressively sweetened.  The soup, ostensibly vegetable but flecked with goat meat, looked innocent enough, but was surprisingly rich and meaty tasting – these guys know how to make a mean (apparently goat based) soup stock.


Upon finishing the soup, our mains arrived.  Opting for ‘K’ style on the chicken suqar turned out to be a good move – the suqar struck us as something of a halfway point between a curry and a stir fry, and the jabati bread strips were dense enough to hold their own in the mix, both absorbing the sauce and presumably thickening it.  An unqualified hit with all who tried it.

The beef steak was less well received.  Flavor was nice, with a significant pepper hit, but the consistency of the beef led to murmurings about truck-stop jerky.  It’s possible that the chewiness of the preparation is traditional, but we’re still left wondering how it’d be if the beef were more tender.

Finally, the fish steak.  This was four or so reasonably sized pieces of salmon with a heavily spiced char crust, topped with a mix of vegetables and french-fry-cut potatoes. Slices of lime and a small salad garnished. The flavors of this dish were roundly appreciated, though there was some discussion about the oiliness.

Sated, I walked up to the cash register to pay.  While doing so, I asked the owner about the reasoning behind offering so many more items for lunch.

‘Simple’, he responded (and I paraphrase), ‘Africans, in Africa, traditionally work until about 2:00-3:00pm, and then have the main meal of the day.  This generally translates into lunch for Africans in the US.  What we call dinner here is a minor meal for most Africans. Usually Americans eat dinner here.’

‘Yep, that’s us’, I chuckled to myself.

Our next stop for African cuisine will be the Calanley Restaurant.  For lunch.