It's not incense, but the smell greets me as I walk into Habesha Ethiopian and Eritrean Cuisine. The faint smell of a strawberry shisha trickles into the entry area, inviting diners to try this restaurant's new offering.
Smoked in a glass water pipe called a hookah, shisha is a preparation of fruits and herbs. The stuff you get here doesn't contain nicotine. A separate shisha room sits to the right of the entryway, while the restaurant itself is on the other side. I glance behind the open curtain into the shisha room—a group of people relaxes there, enjoying a smoke.
We get to select our table, and choose to sit near a window that faces 118 Avenue. The street is quite busy on this Sunday evening, allowing for some compelling people-watching. Ethiopian music plays softly in the background, and I admire the embroidered tablecloths decorating the tables. Framed paintings grace the walls, contributing to the theme and the harmony within the restaurant.
Our server comes to the table for the drink order. He pours water for us immediately; any restaurant that does this scores automatic points with me. And so does the tea menu here.
One friend and I share the Habesha tea pot ($5.99), a spicy beverage containing cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. This tea isn't afraid to let its flavour show; we enjoy it so much that we finish the whole pot before the food even arrives.
At this point, we ask about the shisha ($12.00), but our server informs us that it's best to wait till after dinner, so that we can smoke without interruption from the meal.
Habesha offers a selection of veggie and meat dishes, including combo plates for groups of different sizes. Even though there are three of us, we choose the Veggie Combo for two ($28.99). Wanting to try one meat dish, we add a serving of Yebeg Alicha ($13.99), lamb in herb butter and spices.
The restaurant serves the food in a traditional way: everything that you order comes on a large plate that sits in the middle of the table. Then, diners use injera, a spongy bread, to scoop handfuls of food from the plate.
The plate arrives with the Veggie Combo and the lamb. The first veggie dish that I try is atkilit, a mixture of cabbage, carrots, potatoes and onions in a gently spiced sauce. The cabbage ends up being the strongest flavour, and the sauce matches this taste well. I enjoy the lamb, too, noting that more than one meat dish would be too much, given the generous helpings that this restaurant offers.
By far the best item on the plate is misser wot, a thick red lentil paste. The lentils are mixed with garlic, onions, ginger root, green peppers, olive oil and spices. This dish finds the perfect balance between spice, heat and flavour. My injera finds itself heading towards this dish many times during this meal.
I'm a fan of spinach, so I'm eager to try the gomen, spinach cooked in olive oil, garlic, onions and different spices. This dish pleases, not only because of its flavour, but also for its smooth, soft texture.
Unfortunately, two of the other dishes, the fosolia (string beans, carrots and potatoes) and the kik alitcha (split peas, garlic, onions, turmeric and olive oil) don't impress me as much as the others. The fosolia items feel overcooked, while the latter tastes bland and nondescript. Regardless, our group eats almost everything on the large plate; this was just the right amount of food.
The service does not disappoint during the visit—the servers come past our table very frequently, filling our water glasses, asking if everything is okay and generally seeing if we need anything.
We hear the variety of shisha flavours available, and pick strawberry from the long list that also includes mint, watermelon and orange. I've seen people using shisha before, but this is my first time trying it, so I need instruction. After demonstrating, the server gives each of us an individually wrapped plastic mouthpiece.
Away I go. I take a big, long drag, pleased with all the bubbles I'm making in the bottom of the hookah. At this point, my friends are roaring with laughter at the expression on my face—eyes bulging and cheeks sucked in from my effort.
"You have to relax," my friend howls. "This is for relaxation."
So I do. I relax. I lean back in my chair. Yeah, I'm cool. This time, I inhale slowly and shallowly. It's a bit stronger than, say, inhaling the vapours off a cup of strawberry herbal tea, but the taste is much the same. Well, maybe a bit spicier. And I like it, especially when I can do it correctly.
Still, try as I might, I'm far from being a hookah master by the end of the evening—some of my inhales are still too long, and I choke on the combination of smoke and laughter. My friends, of course, have no such problems, and they joke at my misfortunes. Good thing that we're sitting in a back corner of the restaurant.
While we're enjoying the shisha, we order some traditional Ethiopian coffee ($10). But it's not just about the coffee; it's the entire coffee ceremony, which includes a demonstration of how the beans are roasted. We marvel at its rich taste, which isn't bitter whatsoever. I add nothing to my coffee.
There's a large selection of ethnic restaurants on 118 Avenue; Habesha, with good food and wonderful service, is a great place to go and breathe it all in. V
Mon –Thu (4 pm – 10 pm); Fri (4 pm) – 2 am); Sat (12 pm – 2 am); Sun (12 am – 12 am)
Habesha Ethiopian & Eritrean Cuisine
9515 – 118 Ave