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The One Thing Everybody Wants

January 17, 2019

It’s become a trope around food circles within the Capital Region.
Someone will ask, “What’s the one thing that’s missing from the local culinary landscape?” And the chorus will respond, “Ethiopian food.”

There are a few other common answers like, “A dim sum restaurant with cart service.” And invariably there are the negative answers along the lines of, “The last thing we need is yet another Italian restaurant.” There are also a small handful who continue to long for a place to get banh mi, made on a proper roll that shatters when you bite into it. Although those voices seem to be fading a bit. Sometimes, there is a lone voice calling for an upscale German spot.

Those are all fine and good, but personally I have a longing for simple, casual, rustic food from Spain and France. A legit tapas bar, with bocadillos, and without the aspirations of being a full restaurant, would be right up my alley. Small plates. Spanish wines. Think Lucas Confectionery, but with more of a focus on food than wine. Ooh. Actually, I should pitch that to Heather and Vic.

Then there is the dream for a casual French bistro. Imagine the warm comfortable feeling you get when walking into one of our classic taverns. Well, take that, reduce the menu to a few simple classic dishes, like braised chicken, grilled sausage with lentils, mussels in wine, a ham and cheese sandwich, and a small steak with fries. Maybe through in a ratatouille or something for vegetarians. Serve good cheap wine. Supply great crusty bread with cultured butter. And I’m a happy man.

But I’m the outlier. The good news is that for those who have been waiting for Ethiopian food in the Capital Region, your wait is over.

Last week, entirely by accident, I stumbled upon the opening day of Lotus Ethiopian Cuisine.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a good Ethiopian meal. The last one was probably around seven years ago in Washington D.C. But when I was living in Berkeley, we had a couple different Ethiopian places in our neighborhood, and I would go frequently enough to build a relationship with the owner of my favorite spot.

While the seasoning of the lentil and meat stews are important to this cuisine, I would argue that the most critical component of good Ethiopian food is the bread.

For those who aren’t familiar with injera, it is almost sponge-like in its texture, and tangy flavor. This fermented flatbread is made from the ancient-grain teff, and cooked into large rounds on a griddle. In some ways it looks like a giant, brown pancake. And it’s important for two reasons.

  1. It’s the plate that these berebere spiced stews sit upon, and it helps to absorb the niter kibbeh enriched sauce.
  2. It’s the utensil you use to scoop up bites of comforting shiro wat, or fiery, meaty tibs, with your hands.

I’ve seen very talented chefs who are experts at fermentation, struggle to make a good version of injera. There are other places that decide to try and source injera from elsewhere. But Lotus Ethiopian Cuisine is making its own right here in Schenectady, and it’s delicious.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that this spot isn’t quite a restaurant… yet. For now, it’s a table at the Schenectady Greenmarket. Which means it’s only open on Sundays from 10a-2p. But it’s also not the owner’s first rodeo. She started at the Greenmarket in the past and grew her concept into not one, but two restaurants, plus a line of bottled sauces.

Perhaps you know Aneesa from Tara Kitchen. Well, she’s just as passionate about Ethiopian food as she is about Moroccan cuisine, and she’s convinced an Ethiopian woman to come on board to make her delicious injera.

lotus

If for some reason the icy-snowy apocalypse misses us on Sunday, I’d encourage you to get down to Proctor’s to try this out. While things may change, last week she was selling vegetarian bowls which included three scoops of different stews for $9 and a bowl with two meats and one veg for $13. It is still a work in progress, but even as it stands right now, I would not hesitate to get down there and get yourself a bowl.

There are a couple tables in the room with the food vendors, but you may choose to do what I did and inhale this deeply comforting and delicious food in the privacy of your own car. Yes, it sabotaged my diet, but it was totally worth it.

For the sake of full disclosure, Aneesa gave me samples of each of the bowls, and in return I reached out to her privately with my fussiest suggestions of how I might improve them. I’m pretty much of the mind that anything can be better. I think I even wrote a post about that once. If you’re curious, here it is from the deep archive.

And yes, I know that there has been a place to get Ethiopian food in Albany for a while, but it’s more of an afterthought on their menu. It’s one dish. Two if you count the vegetarian version of the plate. But the hope for Lotus is that this farmers market table will bloom into a full fledged Ethiopian restaurant.

However, to get there, it’s going to need to build a base of support at the Greenmarket. Given its quality, price, and demand of this cuisine—not to mention prior success of its owner—I’m optimistic about the future.

Of course, should you get down to the Greenmarket, hopefully you can stop at some of my favorite farms. Bella Terra is just a few tables down, and I picked up some beautiful dried beans and smoked hot pepper. Man, I love that place.

Maybe I’ll see you there.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2019 11:43 am

    Remember when Garden Bistro had the promise to be that little French bistro? They had a limited menu with moules or steak frites for under $15 when they first opened at 155 and Central Ave. The steak is now $28.50 there, ugh.

  2. January 17, 2019 2:31 pm

    I guess I am the voice for the decent bahn mi, and I am sad to be characterized as “fading”. I’m loud as ever, though losing hope. There are several special ingredients required for a good bahn mi and nobody seems to be going to the trouble to source them. Meanwhile, the term “bahn mi” has been appropriated for all kinds of sandwiches that have nothing to do with the original. That’s the real outrage.

    As to teff, I am impressed that/if this new place is using 100% teff flour. It’s expensive and hard to get (though it’s usually in stock at Honest Weight) and it’s typical that an Ethiopian place will combine teff and wheat flours, and possibly offer all-teff (which is also gluten free) injera for an upcharge.

  3. January 17, 2019 4:02 pm

    No one loves ethnic food more than me, but, no, the masses are not clamoring for Ethiopian food. The people want pizza.

    We the people want a proper Neapolitan style pizzeria (north of Hudson). Come to think of it, we want more than one. And we want Detroit style pizza.

    We’ll take a tender, char speckled Neapolitan pie over injera any day. Everybody also craves a crispy/caramelized Detroit corner slice much more than spongy African bread.

    • January 18, 2019 12:46 am

      I appreciate the sentiment, I do. But after talking with some local pizza shop owners, I can tell you with certainty that the masses of the Capital Region want nothing to do with char speckled anything.

      “Everybody” in this case, was meant to point back to a majority of those who follow the food happenings of Albany and the cities in its orbit.

  4. Marco permalink
    January 18, 2019 10:51 am

    @BurntMyFingers There is a new Vietnamese restaurant, Quang’s Vietnamese Bistro, due to open in Troy soon. It will be in the back of Sunhee’s Grocery-Stationary at 88 3rd St. Hopefully, Bahn Mi will be on the menu.

  5. Jen Sternfeld permalink
    January 19, 2019 9:24 am

    The Greenmarket posted that they are closed this weekend, but I can’t wait to get to try this next week!

  6. January 19, 2019 8:09 pm

    I would LOVE for an Ethiopian restaurant to open here. Addis Red Sea in Boston has been my go-to for the past decade, but that’s a bit of a trek.

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