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restaurant review

Vegetarian platter with beef tibs at the Ethiopian restaurant, Walia in Edmonton Alberta, December 7, 2016.JASON FRANSON

Edmonton is fortunate to house a scant handful of excellent Ethiopian restaurants, including the venerable Langano Skies, which has been around for more than a decade. Lesser-known eateries, however, are worth seeking out. They boast a raw authenticity that has not yet been whitewashed and distorted, as is the case for so many ethnic cuisines that have been refracted through the fast-food lens.

Walia is a relatively recent addition to Edmonton's Ethiopian assemblage, and holds its own in Edmonton's powerhouse dining neighbourhood, 124 Street. Sandwiched between a jeweller and an apartment block, Walia is easy to miss. The small dining room is decked out with wicker chairs and twinkly lights. Bolts of gauzy fabric snake back and forth across the ceiling; it's a valiant effort to spruce up an otherwise pedestrian space. The restaurant's initial lack of stage presence, however, is quickly overshadowed by the myriad of enticing scents wafting out of the kitchen.

Indeed, the exotic fragrances of chilies, cardamom, fenugreek and cloves portend the arrival of flavourful fare. A pot of spiced tea ($3) sings with cinnamon, whole cloves and cardamom. One may stir in a black tea bag for additional oomph, but it is rather quenching all on its own.

Take a look inside Edmonton's Walia restaurant

Ethiopian cuisine promotes communal dining. At Walia, true to Ethiopian form, multiple dishes are portioned out on a large platter – a shallow, woven basket called a mesob – lined with injera. For neophytes, injera is a multipurpose flatbread made out of fermented teff flour. It superficially resembles an enormous, bubbly crepe, and possesses a distinctly sour flavour.

Injera is the cornerstone of most Ethiopian dishes, in that it functions as both edible cutlery and serving vessel. Walia's Vegetarian Combo ($17) is a colour wheel of textures and flavours. Gomen is a simple dish of spinach, carrots and potatoes cooked in spiced, clarified butter. This uncluttered roster of ingredients allows the inherent earthiness of the greens to shine through. Tikel Gomen begins with gently sweet notes of purple cabbage, but quickly crescendos into a blast of heat from cleverly hidden chilies. Mesir Wot allows red lentils to shine with undertones of onion and garlic, all woven together with intricate layers of spice. Key Sir stars ambrosial red beets that gleam like oversized garnets.

Walia's menu gives equal air time to meat-centric dishes. Beef Tibs ($17) bathes tender cubes of meat with clarified butter and russet-hued berbere – this quintessential Ethiopian seasoning blends together a multifarious array of spices that range from piquant to floral to bitter: chilies, cumin, coriander, ajwain, ginger and fenugreek. Cha-Cha ($18.50) also stars beef. Here, it arrives, nattily dressed with strips of caramelized onion and peppers, on a sizzling skillet. Dare I compare it to a fajita platter? Possibly, but injera are just as happy a partner for meat and veg as are tortillas.

Ethiopian cuisine has yet to go mainstream, and one can only hope that it doesn't. The esteemed traditions of injera and berbere are best enjoyed when all the trappings of Western expectation are pared away and one is left with the unadulterated joy that comes from good, honest food. Walia does exactly that and, indeed, is an experience best shared.

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