I had to check a world map to locate Ethiopia. Although the country is almost midway down the east coast of Africa, one can enjoy it’s cuisine closer to home on Washington Avenue in Albany.
Umana describes its cuisine as “Street food from around the world.” Besides Ethiopian injera bread, the restaurant’s menu boasts Dominican Kipe (beef and bulgar wheat croquettes for $10), Thai Style Calamari ($12), Moroccan Slaw or Haitian Pikliz ($3, marinated purple cabbage or spicy pickled cabbage), Dartmouth Village Guyana Red Bean Stew and Shine Rice ($16), Egyptian Lo Mein ($13) and Jerk Lamb Lollipops (Jamaican, $24).
Making choices from this exciting lineup seemed difficult, and we attempted to include meat, vegetables and starches in our selections. In the end, it was easy.
Server Allen, as informed as he was charming, helped us along the way. For example, I had ordered the jerk Frenched lamb chops the only other time I had visited Umana and although I enjoy spicy foods, the appetizer was over the top for me. So Allen toned it down “a notch or two” and served the tender, slightly pink chops with fresh pineapple, which he promised “killed the heat.” It did. The result was perfectly seasoned and grilled lamb.
John’s Cumin Sweet Potato Fritters ($8) were 2-inch pancakes lightly seasoned with cumin and served with a little bowl of cardamom honey. The eight crispy discs were served hot (in temperature) and were elegantly simple. Or maybe simply elegant. John also ordered a side of Ethiopian injera bread ($3) — two thin, spongy rolled-up logs made of teff flour. Eschewing table utensils such as forks and knives, Ethiopians use the bread to pick up and sop up food.
Dinner Guest requested the Kabrite Goat and Djon Djon Rice ($22, grilled goat with black mushrooms and pea rice) served with a side of sweet yellow plantains and mixed greens. Although I’ve never ordered goat, I always at least taste it and wonder why some Americans turn up their noses at the mention of eating goat. Perhaps we watch too much of the Beekman Boys.
My Ethiopian Injera Plate ($20 with coconut cream fish) was large enough to serve two people. The spongy, crepe-like injera bread was draped so that about an inch overhung the plate and 3-inch pockets were formed to cradle the stewed vegetables consisting of potatoes with cabbage, tilapia, tomato and cucumber salad, spinach with confetti-like bits of sweet red pepper, beets and lentils with a sunny-side egg in the center. I requested that the egg be omitted, but Allen assured me I would use it for dipping and mellowing some of the flavors. I did.
Arranged like the numbers on a clock, the various foods nestled within the folds of the bread as if each cavity was designed to fit the food it held. Sprigs of cilantro were lightly sprinkled on top. The dish reminded me of a pizza, Ethiopian style. Allen walked by periodically to make sure I was using the bread to pick up the food (I was). Although each part of the entrée was seasoned differently, the dish melded into one cohesive whole, which was more than the sum of its parts.
Although we were full, Allen informed us the Chocolate Chip Cheesecake Bread Pudding ($8) was just out of the oven and if we could not finish it, he would wrap the remainder for us. Decked out in drizzles of chocolate sauce and a touch of whipped cream, the surface of the bread pudding crunched under a thin layer of baked sugar. While the addition of chocolate seemed akin to gilding the proverbial lily, there were no complaints from either side of the table.
A dozen or so tables at Umana are scattered in three connected spaces. Décor evokes a touch of Africa and the Caribbean, but never overwhelms the food or service.
John summarized the restaurant best: “Umana features international foods with world-class hospitality.” Truly a meeting place for all people.
Ethiopian injera bread is made with fermented teff flour (which gives it a slightly sour taste), which comes from the world’s tiniest grain. Teff is one of the earliest domesticated plants originating between 4000 and 1000 BC in the Horn of Africa.
Umana Restaurant & Wine Bar
WHERE: 236 Washington Ave., Albany, NY 12205; (518) 915-1699; http://www.umanarestaurant.com/; Facebook
WHEN: Tues.-Thurs. 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Sun. brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m., closed Mon.
HOW MUCH: $78 with one coffee and one juice, but without tax and tip.
MORE INFO: Street parking, credit cards accepted, reservations accepted, noise level permits conversation, accessible, wine bar, gluten-free and vegan dishes, nonsmoking, online ordering, Grubhub, catering.