Restaurant: Cafe D’Afrique - Part 2/2
Last visited: May 23, 2013
Location: Vancouver, BC (Mount Pleasant/Main Street)
Address: 363 East Broadway
Transit: WB E Broadway FS Prince Edward St
Phone: (604) 876-9919
Price range: $10-20
1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: FMF Must Try!
- Since 2012
- Chef/owner Kidist Gebremariam
- Ethiopian owned/operated
- Family owned
- African cuisine
- Good for groups/sharing
- Good value
- Vegetarian friendly
- Vegan friendly
- Limited wine/beer list
- Live music on some nights
- Dine in/Take out/Delivery
- 7 days a week 11 am – 12 am
- Mondays open after 5 pm
**Recommendations: Lamb Stew, Goat Stew, Split Pea Stew. I suggest pre-ordering the off-the-menu “Doro Watt” – Ethiopian spicy chicken stew made with Korerima (Ethiopian black cardamom powder) and topped with hard boiled eggs. I was only notified it was an option after dinner and I would go back to try it.
It is embarrassing how few posts I have for African food, let alone African food in Vancouver. There isn’t much of it to begin with and I have little to compare to. I haven’t been to Africa yet, and I don’t need to to appreciate African cuisine, but it would be nice to have an original reference point. Nonetheless I take for granted living in Vancouver and having the option of even exploring it.
I discovered Cafe D’Afrique back in May when I was trying to find an off-the-beaten-path family owned restaurant rarely talked about. I’ve tried the old Nyala African Cuisine (now closed) and Simba’s Grill, which is African fusion, but in Vancouver I haven’t gone beyond those. I’ve tried African food in other cities, but not enough to feel as though I have a solid understanding of it.
Similar to how Middle Eastern cuisine is given one category in Vancouver, so is African food. Despite there being culinary differences in different regions of Africa, it tends to be all grouped together and put under the same umbrella of “African cuisine”.
Cafe d’Afrique offers food from various parts of Africa including Ethiopia, Morocco and South Africa, and they try to stay close to authentic recipes. I wrote about the politics of “authenticity” here, but basically, in the context of Vancouver, this would be considered “authentic” African cuisine.
I am not familiar enough with African food to judge its level of authenticity, but the chef and owner, Kidist Gebremariam, worked for over fifteen years at Nyala African Cuisine before opening Cafe D’Afrique March last year. Nyala was a long standing favourite for African cuisine, but after 20 years it closed late 2011. I went a couple times over 8 years ago and had hit and miss food and poor service, but from what I can recall, it was a more refined and upscale version of Cafe D’Afrique. There are a lot of borrowed items from the Nyala menu, but it is more affordable now, although I can’t speak for any possible changes in quality, portion and flavour.
Cafe D’Afrique is a very casual neighbourhood restaurant. Most people in the area know and love it, but many still have not discovered it, and it blends in on the strip. Besides some African decor, there wasn’t much of an ambiance and it wasn’t busy either, but the family and service was friendly. They have live African music and performers on some nights, so I recommend calling in advance for the entertainment schedule if ambiance is important. I really hope they get busier because the slower business seems to be limiting the potential of their food. I’m no expert in African cuisine, but sometimes you can just tell when things can get better.
It is a small family owned and operated business, and there is only one cook in the kitchen. I don’t doubt their hard work, but it just lacked a bit of passion. I felt for them and I think if it was busier, they could hire more staff and invest more in their menu. Their current standard is good enough to get some repeat customers, but they have more to bring to the table to get the word-of-mouth and line up at the door.
The menu looked extensive with meat, seafood, and lots of vegetarian options, but it actually wasn’t really because most of it was “mix and match” (same sauce, different protein). The variety was limited which usually makes for a more promising menu, but the dishes were quite hit and miss. The subtle flavours and spices could have been intentional, or catered for the clientele, but I considered it mild African food. The desserts were almost all American/Western so I wished they committed more to their African concept, but the rest looked pretty legit.
I still enjoyed the food and it offered excellent value, so mediocre dishes were easily overlooked, but it was the cultural experience that really made it. I strongly recommend coming with a group (minimum 4) because African food is best shared and meant to be enjoyed family style. Without a variety of meat and vegetarian dishes (even the mediocre ones) the meal is unbalanced and a bit flat or repetitive, so I suggest going all out and coming with an adventurous group of eaters. It was something culturally different, fun and unique dining, and with so few African restaurants in the city, I can’t help but to root for them.
On the table:
- Delectable beef or lentil sautéed in spiced butter with onions and green peppers. Lentil $5 Beef $5.50
- Sambussa is an Ethiopian samosa which are traditional during Ramadan and special occasions, although they can be eaten all year as an appetizer.
- In Vancouver we often associate samosas with Indian cuisine, but they exist in many cuisines such as Southeast and Central Asian, Middle Eastern (their supposed origin), Arabian and of course African.
- The sambussas were house made, but I found them pricey considering they were quite small (1-2 bites).
- It was a thin crispy filo, or wonton wrapper, stuffed with a sauteed mix of mainly lentils, and some minced onions and green peppers.
- I don’t think the green peppers are traditional to the recipe and I’m not keen on them in general, but they didn’t play a significant role in these.
- It tasted like lentils wrapped in filo and I was expecting more spices like cumin and perhaps cinnamon and cardamom which can be used in Sambussa recipes.
- Authentically they are quite spicy, but these ones weren’t and the spices were played down and too subtle.
- They served these with a hot chili chutney and a mango (?) chutney that tasted like plum sauce.
- The chutnies seemed pre-made and I was hoping for mint or traditional tamarind chutney, but there could have been more effort in this dish overall.
- Spiced South African sausage sauteed, skewered and grilled with some vegetable friends – a robust mouthful. $5.75
- This is borrowed from the Nyala menu and I’m guessing they are house made, but I’m not sure.
- I found this a bit pricey too, but it was also because it was not very enjoyable.
- The sausage was a bit dry and mildly spiced with cumin and other spices.
- It wasn’t spicy and I found it quite ordinary and it didn’t have char-grilled aroma or flavour.
- They served these with the same chutnies – hot chili chutney and a mango (?) chutney that tasted like plum sauce.
- The chutnies seemed pre-made and I was hoping for a house made condiment to complement.
This is how Ethiopian food is traditionally enjoyed and everyone eats from one platter. It was so much more fun to eat with a big group and having 2-3 dishes would not have done the experience justice. Each item was split into two portions with the exception of the Goat Stew in the centre.
The meat and veggie stews were served on top of layers of injera (a spongey sourdough crepe-pancake made from teff flour). The meal is eaten with hands and the injera acts as the utensil to scoop with, much like roti or naan in Indian cuisine.
- Brown lentils with onion, black pepper, mustard, vegetable oil and fresh herbs. $4.75
- This was a cold lentil and onion salad with a bit of lemon juice.
- It was very simple and tasted like the description.
- It is very healthy and sometimes there are chopped tomatoes and chilies in it, but this was not spicy at all.
- It is not necessarily anything special, but it is traditional Ethiopian salad.
Potato and Beets Salad – 1.5/6 (Poor-Okay)
- Potato and beets with red onion, white peppercorn, oil, fenugreek and fresh herbs. $5.50
- This was another very simple cold Ethiopian salad.
- It tasted okay and it was a side to many things, but it was all potato and no beets.
- It tasted like ordinary chilled potatoes with lemon juice, herbs and spices. It was a bit spicy.
- It was perhaps a bit creamier because the potatoes were so broken down and soft.
- It might be inauthentic to use local new potatoes and local beets, but the salad would taste better.
These were the vegetarian stews and they are offered in a special combination platter (combo for 1 $14.95, for 2 $25, and for 3 $35), which I would recommend ordering with your meat stew. Ordering one vegetable stew isn’t the best way to enjoy African cuisine and on its own it might be a let down. Individually they were basic and more or less just okay, but collectively they make the meal. To highlight the cuisine is to eat the food in the style its meant to be enjoyed.
Lentil Stew – 3/6 (Good )
- A red lentil puree stirred with red pepper sauce, berbere, ginger, and garlic. Medium spicy. $9.95
- Mesir Wat (red lentil stew) is a common and traditional Ethiopian stew.
- It was a creamy puree of lentils with a tomato and red pepper base.
- It was seasoned with berbere which is an Ethiopian seasoning made with chili powder, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, fenugreek etc.
- They were well flavoured, a bit spicy and fragrant.
**Split Pea Stew - 3/6 (Good )
- Yellow split peas mixed with mushrooms, onions, berbere sauce and garlic. Mild. $9.95
- Kik Alicha Wat (split pea stew) is another typical Ethiopian stew (vegan).
- This is not spicy and it is eaten interchangeably with the lentil stew to balance.
- Traditionally it does not have mushrooms, but this version didn’t have mushrooms anyway despite the description.
- It was a thick and creamy puree of lentils which were mildly spiced.
- A big bowl of this would seem boring, but it was a great side dish and it was my favourite vegetarian stew.
- It reminded me of Indian daal, but even simpler in flavour.
Spinach Stew - 2/6 (Okay)
- Chopped greens cooked in vegetable oil with onions and green peppers. Mild. $9.95
- I thought this would be like the Indian saag (spinach) dish, but it was much simpler.
- Gomen Wat (spinach stew) just tasted like chopped plain spinach.
- It was more like Ethiopian collard greens than an Indian saag.
- There can be more spices, but this was very mild and too mild for me.
Cabbage and Carrots - 2/6 (Okay)
- A delicious vegetable mixture of carrots, cabbage, onions, ginger root, chilies and scallions. Mild. $9.95
- This is a traditional African side dish and there wasn’t much carrot.
- The vegetables are seasoned with curry powder, turmeric, and salt and pepper, and it was again very simple.
- Chunks of beef, cooked or sautéed with onions, and green peppers and rosemary and clarified butter. Mild. $14
- If I wasn’t at an African restaurant, this lamb stir fry could have been from anywhere.
- The lamb was fully cooked, quite dry and tough and it was simply stir-fried with bell peppers and onions.
- It just tasted like fajita filling without any spices though and it didn’t come across African at all.
- Paradise is recreated here by weaving together the flavours of red pepper, ginger, cardamom, garlic, exotic spices and succulent morsels of tender goat. Pretty spicy. $15
- This was my favourite of all the stews.
- Fiyyel Wat (Ethiopian goat stew) was pretty much executed just like the vegetarian stews (similar flavour profiles), but this had stronger and more robust flavours.
- It was a similar base to the lentil stew, but the sauce was thicker, heartier and tastier, likely from cooking in its own meat juices.
- It tasted like a tomato curry paste/sauce and it was tangy with lots of sauteed sweet onions.
- I couldn’t taste any particular spice, but it was likely made with the same Berbere spice (Ethiopian house seasoning).
- The meat was well braised, tender and moist and it reminded me of my goat taco experience in Chicago – see Birrieria Zaragoza.
- Succulent lamb simmered in red pepper sauce flavored with ginger root, cardamom, garlic and other exotic spices. Spicy. $14
- This was comparable to the goat stew and they were quite similar.
- It was tender, well marinated and savoury moist lamb (shoulder or leg) covered in a thick tomato paste and red pepper puree like sauce.
- There was nothing else in it but lamb, so the other vegetable stews helped balance it.
- Again, I couldn’t taste any particular spice, but it was likely made with the same Berbere spice (Ethiopian house seasoning).
Injera is traditional Ethiopian bread. As well as laying pieces of injera all over the bottom of the plater, they also served you rolls of it on the side. It is a spongey sourdough crepe-pancake made from teff flour. As I mentioned above, the meal is eaten with hands and the injera acts as the utensil to scoop with, much like roti or naan in Indian cuisine.
- I loved that it actually came in a tagine, but it was just an okay Moroccan tagine.
- It was sweet coconut rice which I found very bland, and then a slow-cooked quarter chicken on top.
- The chicken was moist and well flavoured, but after that, the rest of the tagine fell flat.
- The flavours didn’t taste infused and the components didn’t seem incorporated.
- It tasted like each component was cooked on its own before thrown together in a tagine.
- There were not really enough raisins and dried coconut to make an impact on the dish too.
- The flavours were again very mild and simple, and I wish chef didn’t hold back on spices so much.
- It tasted almost like a curry coconut milk chicken made with turmeric or yellow curry powder instead of ras el hanout (North African spice blend).
- I missed the aromatics, sauce and thicker stew like quality of a well made slow cooked Moroccan tagine.