Injera: An Ethiopian Gem in the West Village
By Lauren Johnson
A couple of years ago when I first moved to New York, I had a serious craving for some Ethiopian food. Having lived in LA for several years, where there is a fantastic Ethiopian quarter, I had access to this tasty cuisine at my take-it-for-granted fingertips. Missing the comforting, spiced stews and the spongy, sourdough injera bread one rainy day in my little apartment in Queens, I knew that in the cultural mecca of the world that is NYC, there had to be some place with comparably-delicious Ethiopian food.
Enter Injera, a gem of a restaurant tucked away in the winding roads of Manhattan’s West Village and named after the eponymous bread. Were it not for the conspicuous red awning welcoming passersby, you might not even notice it quietly lining the sidewalk. For those who are in the know, you’ll find a cozy, charming, low-lit world of its own awaiting you as you pass through the thick curtains separating the alcove from the noisy streets outside.
You’ll most likely be greeted by one of New York’s kindest and most attentive servers, Laurent, who truly cares that the food and drink are to your liking. If you’re not under Laurent’s careful watch, Injera’s head chef himself – Pierre Casaux – will take care of you. He can often be seen flitting about the restaurant refilling water glasses, taking orders, mixing drinks behind the bar, and bringing out fresh injera rolls. In either case, you’re in good hands.
While you listen to the din of a live jazz trio playing in the corner by the bar, I suggest you start with drinks – perhaps the Tel Sangria, made of delicious Tel Ethiopian honey wine, Cointreau, and fresh ginger. If you’re looking for something to keep you warm on a cold night, the Ancient Wisdom is an excellent choice – Ethiopian spiced tea, bourbon, apple, and cinnamon.
Perhaps my favorite item on the menu, the constant variable of every visit, is the meat sambussa appetizer – a thin, flaky, doughy crust stuffed with ground beef, onion, green chilies, and spices and pan fried until golden. These melt-in-your-mouth triangle poppers are so light and crisp that before you know it, they’re gone and you’re left wishing you had ordered two. For those of you familiar with Indian food, think of it as a smaller version of a samosa with a much thinner crust.
Injera, as most Ethiopian places are wont to be, is extremely vegetarian friendly; if meat isn’t your proclivity, there is an array of options, such as the delicious cold starter salad known as Azifa. Azifa is a mixture of cooked lentils, chopped green chilies, onion, ground mustard seeds, lemon juice, and olive oil served up in a bowl with four rolls of injera bread.
For those of you unfamiliar with Ethiopian cuisine, the food is typically eaten with the hands. Rolls of injera bread – which can best be described as a sort of sourdough pancake – are served alongside the dishes and then torn into pieces, thereby used to pick up the delicious bits of stew or veggies in lieu of a fork. Dishes are meant to be shared from a communal plate.
I am most definitely not a vegetarian, and as such recommend the Beg Alicha – a slow-cooked lamb stew with onion, garlic, ginger, and turmeric – or the Kitfo, which is made of freshly-minced lean cuts of filet mignon kneaded in butter and served with cottage cheese mixed with chopped collard greens. Both dishes have a unique and pronounced flavor – just enough spice without overkill. Main dishes are served on an enormous platter, on top of a large, flat piece of injera bread and with an array of vegetable dishes to try: potatoes, beets, collard greens, split pea purée, lentils, and green beans, to name a few. Each dish uses a different combination of spices that both stand out from and complement one another.
If it’s your first time eating Ethiopian food, I’d recommend trying one of their combination platters – beef or chicken – which come out with a sampling of different mains and vegetable sides; next time, you can come back for your favorites.
To top it off, I’d recommend the chef’s special chocolate crème brûlée and a steaming cup of Ethiopian coffee – which tastes much like espresso but goes down a bit smoother.
Perhaps the best part about Injera is the interactive sense of community one has when eating there. The dimly lit atmospheric den filled with African masks and zebra striped walls has a modern, yet somewhat retro feel, as if you and the other guests in this tiny establishment are being transported to a different time and place where you break bread (quite literally) and possibly push your culinary boundaries. Listening to the live music while you eat, making conversation with Pierre or Laurent, and sharing food from a communal plate takes a meal from an obligation to a full-sensory experience.
You shouldn’t take my word for it though – click here to learn more about Injera and how to make a reservation (recommended!).