Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Zigni House, Islington


The evening had hardly got off to an auspicious start. Forced to leave our cosy, dry table at the Mucky Pup (aptly named as it seemed home to every noisy dog in North London) in search of sustenance, we set out on the trail of somewhere called the Sultan Ahmet, reportedly one of the oldest Turkish restaurants in London and purveyors of top charcoal-grilled kebabs. At least, that was the plan. The heavens opened, the Sultan Ahmet was closed for Ramadan, and not wanting to walk any further in the rain, we sploshed on to an Eritrean place literally next door. Bitter experience has taught me that very few places chosen on availability alone and without prior research end up being any good, and so it was a very dubious, not to mention hungry and wet, group of people that sat down in Zigni House last night.

My only other experience of Eritrean food was in Asmara in Brixton a year or two back. It was nice enough, from memory; I remember leaving happy and sated and financially not hugely worse off, but it's fair to say I haven't been itching to go back. None of the different stews seemed particularly interesting or distinct, and all just merged together into one homogonous brown paste - literally, in fact, once they'd all been dumped on the same huge tray of injera. So my hopes weren't sky high for Zigni House, particularly once we'd negotiated the rather listless front of house and found a table in the empty dining room. But things started looking up once the food arrived.


Starters of timtimo rolls and kategna were excellent. The rolls were soft and sour and contained a lovely dense filling of lentils, sort of a thick Eritrean dhal. And the kategna turned out to be delicate crispy squares of fried injera sprinkled with chilli powder - whether it was the ghee or the bread I'm not sure, but these tasted rather like crunchy slices of cheese on toast. Which of course can never be a bad thing.


For mains, and mindful of the homogonous brown paste we accidentally ended up with at Asmara, we made a conscious decision to order a selection of the most diverse-sounding dishes on the menu. What arrived was Quanta Fit-Fit, a delicious concoction consisting of dried beef cooked in the house chilli sauce and mixed up with a few pieces of the ubiquitous injera; Dulet - powerfully flavoured lamb tripe mixed with garlic, chilli and fresh herbs; Zil-Zil - tough but tasty biltong-like strips of blackened cured beef shoulder in a drier spicy paste; and a side portion of the house yogurt, presumably home made because it was as light and fresh as whipped cream and tasted divine. It was all incredibly good, and disappeared in record time, even necessitating an extra order of injera as there was so much of it to scoop up.


There were some issues with Zigni House, I suppose. Service was slow and reclusive - just one guy who spent most of his time hiding out of sight in the bar and had there been more than two tables occupied all evening I imagine he would have struggled. And we had to switch tables after the attractive-looking more informal sofa and raffia pedestal arrangements turned out to be painful and impractical to eat at. But other than that, I can't see why any patient person wouldn't enjoy a meal here - even the vegetarian options looked interesting and judging by the lentil starter I'm sure would have tasted great. Towards the end of our meal (which came to a very reasonable £20 or so a head including a bottle of wine between three), we were engaged in conversation by the fiercely knowledgeable owner Tsige Haile, who I have learned since is considered somewhat of an authority on Eritrean food and a celebrity chef in her native country. We gave our honest and gushing feedback on the meal and she seemed pleased enough, as you might expect. Our unplanned visit, salvaged from the jaws of disaster, turned out to be a minor triumph.

8/10

Apologies for the dreadful pictures. I think my hands were covered in Zigni sauce and I couldn't hold my iPhone still

Zigni House on Urbanspoon

12 comments:

Greedy Diva said...

What are the chances?! Remind me to ask for a lend of your lucky charm next time I'm wandering aimless and lost in the streets of Islington.

Lizzie said...

Given you were in Islington you could have had a very average, bland and expensive meal. You were lucky.

Zigni House had been on my list for at least a year after I saw an article about them in the evening standard.

Su-Lin said...

I adored this place when I visited a few years ago - so happy that they're still going strong! Do they still offer the buffet? - it was very good when I went. Alas, it's quite the trek for me.

Is the chef still thinking of putting out a cookbook? That was the talk back then.

Gourmet Chick said...

Wow the cuisine sounds really interesting. Very lucky find given it was pretty random - all could have ended in disaster (and probably would have if I had been involved would have accidentally eaten at some crap Thai chain restaurant!)

Jonathan said...

I rather like the photos - especially with the story that they are a bit fuzzy because of all the greasy food. Sounds better than our thoroughly OK Brixton adventure

Northern Snippet said...

Finding somewhere by chance like this that turns out to be good is exceptionally lucky.

Gin and Crumpets said...

I have sat on those sofas and regretted it half an hour later! Dinner was great then, glad it's still going strong.

gastrogeek said...

that injera sounds very nice indeed.

Rebecca said...

I came upon this review by accident, and i actually went there a few months back (again by chance - the place next door looked terrible), just after it had been taken over by the fierce lady owner. Service then was pretty much as you described - but it was virtually empty and a Sunday night so we weren't that bothered.
Not having tried Eritrean food before we went for the brown stew stuff (2 varieties) and it was surprisingly nice.

Not somewhere i'm rushing to go back to, but a pleasant dinner nonetheless

Normal In London said...

I went to Zigni House with a TopTable offer a couple of years ago - and really enjoyed it. i must admit, as it has dispapeared off of TT, I thought it had closed down - glad to hear it hasn't!

Islington hotels said...

I have the feeling Zigni House is not a very popular place.I searched for a current information for the restaurant nut alas. There are only 5 opinions for the Zigni House for the last year.

normalinlondon said...

I thought Zigni House had closed - it was the first place I EVER booked thru TopTable about 5 years ago - and it was GORGEOUS, but disappeared off of TT about a year later. I may well have to check it out again!