358 Victoria Street North Melbourne, Victoria 305103 9329 8018
|Opening hours||Tues-Sun 5-10pm|
|Features||Vegetarian friendly, Licensed, BYO|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
EAST AFRICAN ISN'T Melbourne's most mainstream cuisine … yet. Surprisingly, it hasn't reached much beyond Melbourne's west, considering it's all about sharing and the food is so layered with flavour.
Eritrean food came to the people of North Melbourne when Little Africa opened two years ago. The restaurant delivers colourful combos covered in woven cloches to its popular neighbour the Prudence Bar. The bar acts as a kind of surrogate second dining room, effectively tripling the capacity of tiny 20-seater Little Africa.
Owner Ruta Ukbagerish works the cupboard-size kitchen, starting in the morning slow-cooking stews to be served in the evening. Cooking is in Ukbagerish's genes: her family owned a restaurant in Eritrea. After coming to Melbourne, Ukbagerish opened a spice store in Footscray (Mama Rosina's) and her sister Rahel owns the Abyssinian Restaurant in Kensington.
With years of experience importing spices, Ukbagerish knows her berbere, the rich, red blend of 27 spices central to Eritrean cooking. ''[Berbere] is in all my cooking,'' she says. ''It changes character and can taste completely different depending on what you cook with it.''
A good way to test that theory is to order an impressive combination plate: vegetarian or mixed (three meat and three veg). Combo plates come on a huge tin tray, lined with spongy, pocked injera (like a pancake) and dotted with six small serves of dishes cherry-picked from the full menu and arranged around a fresh lemon-dressed salad.
The veg plate (pictured above) is a winner and includes three ruddy-coloured, dhal-like dishes infused with berbere, each subtly different - one made with dried and ground chickpeas, one with split lentils and one with fava beans (called fool, which is textured by mushed beans and slicked with ghee). There are also tangy, peppery pumpkin pieces and turmeric-stained veg.
On the mixed plate, meat dishes might include yielding pieces of perch; a light, tangy chicken stew; and lamb stew - cooked tender for more than two hours. Ukbagerish is happy to substitute one dish for another and to cook ghee-free options for vegans.
All dishes are best eaten with a tear of slightly tangy injera bread, which balances the flavours. The range of African beers makes a fresh, fizzy counter to the spice-rich food and means you can dine in Little Africa's small but thoughtful room, with its sweep of wall ornaments and industrial Tolix-style chairs. That's if there's space, which is likely to be increasingly scarce.
Do ... Try hands-on eating, without cutlery
Don't ... Come without cash, or be prepared to make a dash to the ATM
Dish ... Vegetarian combination
Vibe ... Low-key, snug and neat
Prices ... Starters, $5; mains, $10-$18; multi-dish combinations, one person $20-$25, two people $35-$45
Nina Rousseau is on leave.