Afrika - 18 Cambridge Terrace
Ph: (04) 384 6968
Open Tues-Thur 5pm-11pm, Fri-Sun 11am-4am
Price range of mains: $15-$22
Cost: $68 for two (excluding wine)
Wine list: 2.5/5
About 15 years ago, I went along to a Wellington high school's ethnic food fair with low expectations, only to encounter a striking Somali woman dressed in full rig, busily working a hot griddle.
She was grilling the Somalian version of injera, the great porous flatbread of Ethiopia, rendered slightly sour by its partially fermented batter.
Nestled on the spectrum of spongy yumminess somewhere between an English crumpet, a Breton buckwheat crepe and a south Indian dosa, injera is one the 1001 foods you must try before you die.
An afterglow of deliciousness lingered in my taste memory ever after, and for years I've been hoping for some local Somalian to open a restaurant, with injera as the central attraction.
That still hasn't happened, but at least we now have Afrika, a pan-African cafe that recently replaced Casablanca Cafe on Cambridge Terrace.
Here Wellingtonians finally get to taste injera, albeit only on a Sunday – "Ethiopian Sunday" – when an Ethiopian chef takes over.
As is traditional, the injera becomes an edible plate of flatbread to break off and eat with the wet stews placed upon it, such as Doro Wet, (my One Thing You Should Try) or a duo of lentils, one bland, one spicy, with sauteed silverbeet.
There was a strong sense of generosity: the staff offered extra injera, which naturally I accepted, and with every customer's main they threw in a free beer and popcorn.
Ethiopia being home to the coffee plant, theirs must be the mother of all coffee ceremonies: as we ate, our cheerful server squatted in the middle of the restaurant floor and roasted green coffee beans in a dry pan, swishing them back and forth until dark brown, then grinding them and serving us the coffee black in tiny black cups, free of charge.
This was day and night to our first experience of Afrika the previous Friday evening, when our server had to whisk round the corner to read the blackboard before she could tell us the daily specials.
Worse still, she took down my daughter's order incorrectly and brought her the wrong dish – a boring mixture of oily vegetables – which she nevertheless insisted on eating, in order not to create a fuss.
From the regular Monday to Friday menu we ordered East African Vegetable Curry, which was likewise bland.
My Beef Maafe was pleasant, but needed more peanut, if only to ameliorate the acidity of the tomato.
As stews go, Jollof Lamb was quite good, but even better was our entree, Chicken Yassa. These famous lime-marinated, grilled wings from Senegal had been done with lemon but were still nicely crisp and sharp.
Afrika features live drumming on Friday night, but otherwise there's a contemporary African playlist, turned up louder than normal. This makes it harder to converse, but it's all part of Afrika's attempt to create the vibe of an African village cafe. Hence the brightly contrasting walls and the memorabilia, including a spooky tribal mask and giant Scrabble boards painted on the table tops.
The food is slopped on to the plate, and all in all, depending on which side of the snob's divide you stand, Afrika might appear either feral or hip.
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
Like the injera flatbread upon which it is served, Doro Wet is only available at Afrika on Ethiopian Sunday. Consisting of chicken braised in a tomato-onion gravy with cardamom, fenugreek, peppercorns, spiceberries, garlic and ginger, it might be mistaken for a good Indian chicken curry, were it not for the whole hardboiled egg served with it.
- © Fairfax NZ News