328 Brunswick St Fitzroy, VIC 3065
|Opening hours||Tue and Thu 5.30pm-10.30pm; Wed and Fri–Sun noon-10.30pm|
|Features||Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options, Cheap Eats, Bar, Outdoor seating, Family friendly|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Payments||eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||0421 009 519|
It may seem niche, a coeliac-safe, largely vegetarian/vegan Ethiopian restaurant, but Saba's is deep in free-choice Fitzroy – a few doors up from a Mediterranean/Indian veg cafe, across from the vegan Vietnamese, and between three no-faux smart diners making heroes out of vegetables to the north, and a vegan South American bar-restaurant and Jewish deli to the south. It's also the third restaurant in the area serving Ethiopian. Not so niche, but neither is it everyday.
Outside Footscray and Fitzroy, Ethiopian restaurants are a rarity. If you've never been, Saba's is a great way in. In the words of Saba Alemayoh, the fresh, young (25) face of the casual place: "it's dump and eat". By dump, she means that she will upend a bowl and tip its contents onto the middle of your table. Fortunately, there will be a second repository ready – a round woven basket lined with an injera.
Injera is the slightly sour, fermented, teff-flour pancake – the tiny teff grain, grown in the Ethiopian highlands, is gluten-free. The wot (wet dishes) are tipped on top, then everybody rips in: tearing off shreds and using it to pick up portions of the dish and push it into their mouths.
Injera's tang can almost take the edge off a spicy dish like dorho – one of the few non-veg dishes. It's chicken pieces slow-cooked in molten berbere (the signature spice combination that's 80 per cent chilli, plus 16 other spices).
The pocked injera, served cold, will have two to three dishes in its centre, such as diced and mildly spiced beetroot, shredded silverbeet sauteed soft in garlic and ginger, and birsen, which is like a lively red-lentil dhal cooked in a kicking chilli paste.
There's a mild version made with yellow split peas and a turmeric-based paste, as well as the famous fava-bean stew called foul (pronounced ful), which you will be after eating all that injera – it's like eating bread with every bite, which can be mighty filling.
Alemayoh comes around with a tray of rolled up, top-up injera ($2 a roll), as the one holding the wot won't last long.
It's all cooked by Alemayoh's mother, Tekebash Gebre, who you can catch glimpses of in the kitchen if sitting downstairs, where tables are tightly spaced in the plain room spruced with a deep-red feature wall and wall-mounted colourful baskets.
Ethiopia is a country with serious coffee-growing cred, and Saba's (like other Ethiopian restaurants) performs the coffee ceremony, which starts with roasting green beans, moves through grinding and brewing (in a jebena, which is like a clay moka pot) to serving in little cups.
With carefully made coffee and punchy food you can eat with your hands, Saba's should have broad appeal.
Do … A coffee ceremony, Friday to Sunday, from 1pm.
Don't … Miss the neat little drinks list of Ethiopian and local beers, and Victorian wines, or the un-Ethiopian desserts: gluten-free chocolate mousse and brownie.
Vibe ... Dump and dine.