It feels awkward, at first. A large silver bowl and jug is brought to the table by one of the wait-staff and you’re asked to wash your hands. You rub soap dispensed from a pump bottle all over your mitts, and then rinse with lukewarm water. The foamy water catches in the basin below, and then you’re ready to eat.
In King Street, Habesha Ethiopian Restaurant has been offering Novocastrians a whole other world of compelling cuisine for almost two years. It’s an outstanding achievement considering the often giddy whims of the restaurant scene. While dude food trends around town, Habesha pays no mind to the fickle fashions of most finger foods … except that you are expected to eat most Ethiopian dishes sans cutlery. That’s why it’s polite to wash your hands before eating at Habesha.
The last time we ate here was in summer, and the heavy comfort of the stew-like meals left us craving for a cold winter’s night to roll home under. Tonight, we got out wish.
Arriving in out of the cold, my dining associate and I sit at a table decorated with a small glass pot filled with silvery green leaves set with napkins, glasses, and a small basket with two flannel towels. The towels are to wipe your hands after you wash them. Our order is taken by a polite-enough waiter who then brings out the silver basin and jug of warm water.
The décor hasn’t changed that much since Weekender last reviewed Habesha. The exposed brick walls are hung with geometric mats featuring hieroglyphs and other patterns. Pictures of African pastoral scenes and religious iconography are hung in between, alongside colourful Ethiopian baskets and bowls.
A small emporium of shelves stocked with books, bags, and other gifts is in the corner, opposite a small counter that doubles as a bar stocked with plenty of Hunter wine.
The counter/bar sits in front of Habesha’s kitchen, concealed by an olive wall, which is the source of the enticing smells.
A bottle of chilled water is brought and a glass of wine each is poured to brace our palates for tonight’s land-locked inspired feast: crispy sambusa, followed by two steaming hot plates of doro wot and tikel gomen, served alongside a basket of flat, spongy, sourdough crepes, called injera. Injera is a type of fermented flatbread that's made from an ancient fine grain known as teff. It has a subtle flavour, which is slightly tangy, slightly sour. The idea is to tear off a piece of injera, load it up with whatever you've ordered, and eat with your hands.
We start with beef sambusa; four crispy pastry packets filled with mince, spices and allium, served with a chilli dipping sauce. They crackle and crunch much like anything else that’s been deep fried.
The flavours are subtle, inoffensive, and not a bad way to signal to the stomach that it’s about to be sated.
An Ethiopian ‘wot’ is a little like a stew or a curry that can be prepared with many types of protein, including chicken, beef, lamb, and also vegetables.
Habesha serve a few wots, including options to suit any vegetarian, like the miser wot with red lentils, shiro wot with ground chickpeas, or the difen miser wot with braised black lentils. Tonight, we order the wot with chicken, (doro wot) and the tikel gomen; braised cabbage, carrot and potato spiced with roasted turmeric, garlic and mild chillies.
Both mains arrive, steaming hot and smelling really good, along with a basket of cold injera. The doro wot looks familiar, like a casserole, but smells exotic, like a curry. A hard-boiled egg is mixed among moist bits of stewed chicken cooked in clarified butter and a tomato, onion and garlic sauce seasoned with Ethiopian spices.
The tikel gomen is a yellow, green, and orange amalgam of vegies, reminiscent of sauerkraut.
You might need to loosen your belt after a meal at Habesha, but you’ll feel satisfied, nourished and full.
- What: Habesha Ethiopian Restaurant
- Where: 181 King St, Newcastle – habeshafood.com.au
- Owners: Darrell and Lidya Stapleton
- Drinks: Good selection of Hunter wine, beer, soft drinks, Ethiopian tea and coffee.
- Hours: Lunch: Tues-Fri, Dinner: Mon-Sat
- Vegetarian: Yes
- Bottom Line: $60 for two, not including drinks
- Wheelchair Access: Yes
- Do Try: Beef sambusa, doro wot