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