Flatiron Lunch: Lalibela Brings Ethiopian Food to Flatiron
Every Friday we go south of the ML boundaries in search of a delicious lunch. Sometimes it’s Murray Hill south or the Flatiron District, sometimes Gramercy and everything in between- but we just like to call it Flatiron Lunch.
Several months ago, I was excited to see an Ethiopian restaurant setting up shop in our neighborhood. While I know a few people who just can’t get behind Ethiopian food, I have had great experiences the few times I have tried it, and I am all for new cuisines in the area.
Obviously, I wanted to visit as soon as it opened, but the lunch prices were really pushing the ML budget with only vegetarian options coming in at $10 or under. If it was another sandwich shop or Indian restaurant, I might have never made it onto Lalibela, but as the only Ethiopian spot in Flatiron Lunch, I was willing to break the rules a little.
After months of waiting to see if the lunch prices would come down by a dollar, a friend and I decided to give it a try. The first thing I noticed when I walked in was a funky smell – a combo of spices and cleaning supplies (essence of dirty mop?)
Inside Lalibela, the space has minimal decorations and frills, but the most noticeable interior item was empty tables. During our lunch, there was only one other table with two people and one take out order. Not a great sign.
The service was severely spotty. When they came to check on us, they were very attentive and wanted to make sure everything was okay. But we had to go out of our way to make sure our order was taken and to request our check. On the flip side, our lunch came out very quickly once to order was finally taken.
I ordered the tibs wot ($11) described on the menu as dices of lean beef seared on hot skillet then slow cooked in a hot berbere stew. My friend ordered the misir wot ($10) which was listed as lentils stewed with onions, garlic and berbere sauce. Perhaps it wasn’t smart on our part to both order dishes with berbere sauce, but we both wanted those flavors. Not being an expert on berbere sauce, or Ethiopian food, for that matter, I can’t dissect it like I might want to, but I enjoyed the flavor it added to the two dishes. Also, the spice provided by the sauce had a nice burn, and my friend commented on how it was a good alternative to the heat in Indian and Latin dishes.
Both of our meals came with our main dish on top of injera with a scoop of a lentil side dish, a lightly pickled cabbage, and an extra piece of injera. If we had known one of the veggie sides would be a lentil, we probably wouldn’t have ordered misir wot, so we recommend finding out what will automatically come with your meal before placing your order to get a variety of flavors. The cabbage and carrot veggie dish wasn’t quite a pickle, but had a hint of vinegar which provided balance to the meal.
We spent a good part of the meal analyzing the differences between the two breads. While the server told us they were the same, the injera folded on side plate was lighter, thinner and a little more sour, which we both preferred. We suspected the main injera was made in further advance and made thicker to hold the food.
While my overall experience at Lalibela didn’t blow me away, it showed promise. I think the funky smell in the space brought down the overall atmosphere, as much as I tried to put it out of my mind. My hope is that the food at Lalibela steps up the quality of the food quickly to bring in more business, because with such a large (and probably expensive) space they will need a lot more customers to keep going.
The + (What somebody who likes this place would say)
- I am so excited to have a new cuisine in the area.
- I enjoy a little scoop of this and that all with spongy bread.
- The injera was so delicious we kept eating even after we were totally full.
The – (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say)
- A strange smell in a restaurant is unforgivable and hints at larger problems.
- With the spices used in Ethiopian food, it shouldn’t be too hard to create flavorful dishes.
- With so few customers, the service should be better for the people actually there.
Lalibela, 37 East 29th Street, between Park and Madison Aves, (646) 454-0913