Category Archives: African

Intercontinental Restaurant

Cuisine – Nigerian

5777 Cleveland Ave
614.843.5665
Open 11am – 9pm daily, 1pm – 7pm on Sunday

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As we drove towards Intercontinental, the normally indefatigable food adventurer, Bethia Woolf, was looking a bit pallid. “What’s wrong?”, I ask.

“You know!”, was the curt reply.

You see, sometime during her formative years in the UK, Bethia was invited to a dinner put on by Nigerian friends of her family. This meal left scars that persist to this day – memories of flavors and textures so vividly disagreeable at the time that they can’t help but cast something of a shadow over what’s to come.

As we perused the fully (and helpfully) photo-illustrated menu, though, tensions began to subside somewhat. It certainly didn’t look too scary, and, by and large, struck me as quite appetizing. Co-owner and all around pleasant guy Olawale Ajiboye (“call me Wally”, he says) eagerly explained unfamiliar items to us.

With Olawale’s help we quickly made our selections, and the wait for our dishes was notably short.

First up was a plate of moi moi, goat meat, and jollof rice. This moi moi (also known as moinmoin) was roundly thought to be fascinating and tasty stuff – essentially slices of a bean loaf studded with hard boiled eggs and beef, the texture was light and the flavor was surprisingly complex and umami forward. It disappeared quickly. The jollof rice was similarly easy to appreciate, and this version struck us as being similar to a spicy Mexican rice with additional earthy, meaty undertones. We couldn’t argue with the flavor of the goat, but tenderness wasn’t in the cards.

Same could be said for what was, to my tastes, an (over)steamed whole fish. This came with rice and beans, which, if my eyes didn’t deceive, was actually rice and black eyed peas. Initially a somewhat unexciting side, Olawale brought out a savory, earthy red sauce for it that brought it all together swimmingly.

Our final dish, spinach and plantains, confirmed a long-held impression – African cuisines really know how to handle spinach. Solay Bistro and Taste of Zanzibar both have notable spinach dishes, and Intercontinental’s version is every bit their equal. The accompanying plantains were of the ripe, sweet, caramelized variety. If you’ve had them at any Caribbean restaurant, you’ve had this version… and that’s not a bad thing by any means. While a generous portion was a feature of this dish, it should be noted that there was a garnish of plantains on all of the dishes we tried.


Having struck up an easy rapport with Olawale, he reiterated several times his desire for honest feedback on the meal. We sheepishly inquired about the chewiness of the proteins, and he both thanked us for mentioning it and gently averred that the overt firmness was a widely held preference among West Africans. Experience with several other West African restaurants leads us to think it likely true.

We were then invited to try tastes of a couple of other menu items. Small bowls of the okra soup and egusi soup were presented.

Okra soup, we’ve come to find, is pretty consistently mucilaginous, and while the flavor was enjoyable that texture is still a tough sell. The egusi, normally eaten with pounded yam, is a curious mixture that includes melon seeds and smoked fish. Challenging in both flavor and aroma, we’ve concluded that egusi may well have been the source of Bethia’s childhood trauma.

Intercontinental’s space was a pleasant enough place to enjoy a meal, and the service was notably on the ball. While they’re no exception among African restaurants in offering dishes that can be challenging to the average American palate, our experience leads us to believe that they’ll also have something satisfying for just about everyone (including vegetarians).

Pepper soup is a weekend specialty, and something we look forward to trying out.

Taste of Zanzibar


CLOSED

Cuisine: Tanzanian / East African

3322 Morse Road
614.476.1843

Open
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday & Friday 11:30 am – 9:00 pm
(Closed Tuesday)
Saturday 12:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Sunday 12:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Click here to map it!

Telly, the owner and operator of Taste of Zanzibar, is not too shy to tell the details of her journey from Tanzania to Columbus. Schooling in France, years in New York and a stint with the United Nations all preceded her current life as a restaurateur on Morse Road. Ask her a question and she’ll happily answer, in detail, with a beautiful smile. But try to capture that smile — perhaps the best item on the menu at Taste of Zanzibar — and be prepared to be shooed away. She’d much rather her food and restaurant be in the spotlight, and, luckily, both are deserving of the attention.

Having spent a short amount of time (literally three days) on Zanzibar Island a few summers back, I was eager to try the cuisine, to jog my memories of that weekend trip a ferry’s ride away from Dar es Salaam. The food at Taste of Zanzibar is rich with spices, an homage to its origin’s nickname: the Spice Island. But true to my memories, nothing is too spicy or strange. Even the least adventurous diner would find the menu easy to take in.

I present the beef sambusa. The problem with the sambusa is that I always want two or three, taking away my appetite for the rest of the food I’ve ordered. (The first time I stopped at Taste of Zanzibar, I pretended like I was taking a carryout order for my roommate and I, and not just ordering two entrees for myself. The second time, I just admitted to Telly that I wanted all the food.) The good thing about the sambusa? It’s only a dollar.

There are two combo options — both with several dishes — allowing the indecisive eater the chance to try several things at once. Pictured above are chicken curry (with a wonderfully mild coconut milk based sauce), mchicha (chopped spinach with coconut) andchapati.

Next up, fish with coconut curry sauce and ugali with beans. Ugaliis a malleable combination of cornmeal and water. Used as a spoon, it, along with beans, is a staple in the Tanzanian diet. I ordered it more for memory’s sake than for its taste. Next time, I’ll have one less dish to vie for my attention. Ever aware of her customers’ expectations, Telly warned me that the fish had bones in it before I solidified my order. That curry sauce more than made up for any inconvenience caused by bones.

Once I knew that a photograph of her face was off limits, I asked if I could at least get some shots of her in the kitchen, working with her hands. The recipe for chapati is simple, and I’ve tried it many times at home, but I’ve never been able to make it like a pro. So I was excited that she agreed to demonstrate her technique.

Working the dough into a rosebud is the key to a good chapati, I learned. It’s all in the twist of the wrist.

A flight to Tanzania cost as much as my first car ($2400 for a 1987 Chevy Cavalier). It’s a relief to know that if I feel like stepping into a new culture for an hour or so, I don’t need a transcontinental flight to enjoy the food and hospitality of the spice island; a short drive down Morse Road is all it takes. Stop by for the food and say hello to Telly. Just don’t try to take her picture.

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.

Continue reading

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

Click here to map it!

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.