If you’re looking to test the mettle of your out-of-town guests, have them meet you for vegan Ethiopian food next to a vacant lot on the border of Bushwick and East Williamsburg. The buzzy neighborhood isn’t out of the way by any means, but Bunna Café‘s low-slung building, housed on a broad stretch of Flushing Avenue, feels far removed from the bearded din at nearby Roberta’s. And though the mash-up sounds like a Brooklyn cliché, Ethiopian cuisine has long had vegetarian and vegan dishes in its repertoire thanks to extended fasting periods imposed by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Chef Kedija Srage has served her meatless wots and tibs as part of a pop-up experience around the city since 2011, becoming a fixture at Kings County’s weekend food orgy Smorgasburg. Last summer, the team began serving lunch here while the space was home to short-lived Southern gastropub Mama Joy’s. When the South didn’t rise again, hushpuppies morphed into sambusas, and Bunna took over. The flaky pastries (similar to Indian samosas) are filled with simmered lentils and served with a bright cilantro sauce that could use some more spice, but the crisp shells are flawless, the filling dark and deep.
Geometric wooden structures accent the spacious dining room, where large palette-shaped platters cover the tables, festooned with multicolored dollops of vegetables laid out in gorgeous patterns on injera. Bunna’s version of the spongy, tangy sourdough flatbread feels airier than its peers and doesn’t hit you over the head with sourness. Mellow and yeasty, it takes a welcome backseat to the nine varieties of warm and cold dishes that form the backbone of the meal.
Dishes can be ordered individually, but combination platters are the real draw here. Solo diners can opt for an $11 five-choice meal or a $15 seven-choice feast, and groups of two to four are privy to all nine options, from $28 to $48, respectively. Unroll swaths of provided injera and fill the empty space with proteins and vegetables. Add a cup of ruddy daata, a condiment made from mashed cilantro, awaze (a sweetened berbere-based marinade), garlic, and vinegar; the fiery paste electrifies everything it touches. You’ll also find awaze brushed onto folded slips of injera seared with olive oil that form an oddly addictive appetizer, and the only truly spicy dish on the menu.
That old standby meat substitute, the portobello mushroom, brings earthiness to enguday tibs. Lent heat from aromatic, multifaceted berbere, it also includes the very Western addition of rosemary. Chickpeas are simmered with garlic and ginger into a potent mash. Rust-colored red lentil misir wot radiates with gentle heat from more berbere. Yellow split peas laced with turmeric have an almost dal-like flavor. The rotating seasonal special on our visits was a cooked-down mix of cabbage, potatoes, and carrots seasoned with turmeric.
Sautéed beets and carrots are served cold, but the sleeper of the night is a pile of pudding-like injera pieces that have been soaked in roasted sunflower milk and mixed with tomatoes and peppers. Muted and creamy on its own, it’s the perfect foil for that hot sauce.
Kale predictably shows up on the menu, enjoyable in all its forms, but do we really need to see the leafy green three times? As a starter, it’s tossed cold with lime juice, turmeric, dried cranberries, and butecha, a chickpea flour stuffing. The nutty, chewy legumes just barely save it from becoming a generic salad that might appear anywhere in this brassica-mad country. On entrée platters, the butecha is replaced with avocado for another cold preparation. Steamed with carrots, red onion, and ginger, it’s called gomen.
The restaurant is awaiting a liquor license and not tempting fate with BYOB, so your best bet for a festive drink is espris, a virgin Pousse-café made from mango, papaya, and avocado purées stirred with grenadine. Wind your evening down with soothing thyme and ginger tea, or keep things rolling with an Ethiopiano, a blend of mulled black tea and Ethiopian coffee.
About that coffee: It’s roasted throughout the day and served espresso-style, slightly syrupy on the palate and with an undercurrent of bittersweet berry notes. Bean freaks take note: Owners Sam Saverance and Liyuw Ayalew have carved out time four nights a week to perform a traditional coffee ceremony, where an audience observes the roasting process and drinks the results.
Baklava is Bunna’s only dessert, but it’s a mighty contender. So many nut-based desserts only focus on solo flavors, but here Srage mixes pistachios with walnuts. The sweet, earthy combination lends a depth to the dessert that’s further excavated by heady coffee syrup made with demerara sugar, a fitting end to a feast full of surprises.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 14, 2014