How often do you eat something new? I don’t mean a new version of recipe or at a new restaurant, I mean a dish you’ve not heard of before. How often do you try a new style of food? Something that is very different to the food that normally adorns your dinner plate.
In Liverpool this is a really difficult task to achieve; not that we don’t have great restaurants, we do, but there isn’t much I haven’t seen before. Sometimes I like a challenge on the plate in front of me, sometimes I just want something different. Selam Cafe, Liverpool’s first Eritrean restaurant offers that difference, and it offers it at prices that are hard to beat.
Eritrean food isn’t new to the UK, there are a couple of similar Ethiopian restaurants in Manchester, and they are more common in London. However, for Liverpool at least, this is something different; it was certainly a style of food I’d not tried before.
Selam Cafe is on Smithdown Road, near the junction of Gainsborough road, it occupies what was once the greasiest of late night kebab shops. The food revolves around injera, large pale wheat pancakes, made from a natural yeast ferment, they have a sour taste and soft texture, and operate both as a staple food and cutlery.
Each meal consists of a large tray of injera, laid out with your chosen dishes served on top, thus you tear off sections of the pancake and use it to spoon up the other dishes. It’s not dainty or delicate, your fingers will get covered with sauce and you’ll make a mess doing it, but it’s fun.
It’s the tactile action of tearing the pancake, scooping up the food, shovelling it into you mouth and then licking your fingers clean, that provides some physical connection that can be lacking in more refined restaurants.
Beyond the injera, the menu consists of various stews and curries of lamb, chicken, beef or vegetables. During a couple of visits I’ve tried several different dishes, the Derek Tibs (£7.99) was pieces of lamb cooked in a dry spice blend, it had a rich flavour with slight heat from chilli and pleasant fragrance to it.
A serving of Doro Alicha Wot (£5.99) was chicken legs with a deep onion sauce, it had a nice sweetness to it without being cloying. Vegetable dishes of Kik Wot (£4.99) was a fragrant stew of lentils and a dish of spinach with carrots had a rich iron-y flavour, although could have done with more of the promised garlic and ginger.
The woman who runs Selam is pretty much a sole trader; she serves and cooks, and is never anything other than cheerful. During my second visit we tried to order four dishes between two people but she said this would be too much and recommended we stick to three. I was impressed by her willingness to make us spend less money but have a more suitable meal, I’m not sure many other restaurants would do this.
Both my trips resulted in large and filling meals for £10 per person, including soft drinks. That is really excellent pricing for food that is both very tasty and different to every other restaurant in Liverpool. The menu also offers some pasta dishes like lasagne and rice dishes like biryani, although I see no reason to stray from the more traditional offerings on the menu.
In a time of contrasts where we are regularly reminded about the poor state of the economy while a barrage of Michelin-starred chefs harp on about expensive local produce and refined cooking, it is places like this that are really improving the Liverpool restaurant scene.
Vibrant, interesting and tasty food at prices you can’t fault, what more could you want?
341 Smithdown Road