An Early Taste of the Vegan Ethiopian Food at Bunna Cafe
All photos by Laura Shunk
The New York City culinary landscape isn't exactly saturated with Ethiopian food, and until very recently, it was entirely lacking in restaurants devoted to the vegan dishes of that cuisine. So perhaps that explains why Bunna Cafe (1084 Flushing Avenue) was so packed on its opening weekend -- and why the kitchen had run out of injera, that spongy sour flatbread used to scoop up stews.
To miss out on the injera would be to miss the real experience of the meal, so we returned instead a week later, when the kitchen had worked out that kink.
Even early in the evening, the moodily lit dining room hummed along with a rhythm unusual for a spot without a liquor license (it's coming, ownership promises, which is why the place also won't allow BYOB).
Despite the fact that it's underrepresented in America, vegan Ethiopian food, owner Sam Saverance told us a few weeks ago, doesn't deviate from tradition: An Ethiopian religious tradition includes fasting and forgoing meat on holidays, and its from the canon of dishes prepared during that event that Bunna's menu is culled. If you've eaten Ethiopian food before, many of them will look familiar -- Saverance also says that recipes for Ethiopian vegetarian dishes are usually vegan, which means you've eaten renditions of the chickpeas, lentils, and greens on Bunna's menu at other Ethiopian restaurants in the city.
There's an easy way to sample the whole menu here (which is what we always want to do at a spot that offers sharable feasts); opt for the feast for two (or three or four), which nets you all nine hot and cold dishes on the list. You should also toss in an order of the spicy, crispy lentil sambusas and, perhaps, the butecha selata -- a kale salad mixed with red onion, cranberries, and butecha, a sort of chickpea flour stuffing -- if you're feeling extra hungry. Highlights of the platter included the shiro (a garlic and ginger-imbued chickpea mash), misir wot (earthy red lentils), and gomen (steamed kale with carrots and onion).
We missed the Ethiopian coffee ceremony the night we were in, but if you're curious, it's a ritual Bunna performs several times a day. We did sample the thick mango, avocado, and papaya juices, layering them on top of one another at our server's urging.
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