Journalist Sarah Efron explores strip malls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants in search of the city's best ethnic food

Monday, August 26, 2013

A very special Ethiopian restaurant

Toronto has dozens of Ethiopian restaurants, but Queen Street East's Keeffaa Coffee is truly unique. Located on Queen East near Parliament—one of the only parts of downtown yet to gentrify—Keeffaa is a cross between an independent coffee shop, a hippie organic cafe and a traditional Ethiopian restaurant. It's a strange mix but the somehow the elements combine to make a friendly place with some truly innovative dishes.

Like many good cafes and bars, Keeffaa is an extension of the personality of its owner, Elsabet Wubie. A bubbly, free thinking artist, Elsabet has her paintings displayed on the cafe's walls. "I cook just like I paint," she says. "I don't use recipes. It just comes to me."

The quaint back patio is a meeting place for new age types—don't be surprised if you find yourself invited into a conversation on healing techniques or the materialism of Western society. If that doesn't turn your crank the food certainly will.

The menu is subject to Elsabet's mood, so just ask what's on offer. On one visit I had a cold ginger/mango/lime drink punched up with cayenne, which was surprisingly refreshing. On another visit I had the popular Mexican hot chocolate. For $5, This frothy, rich bittersweet drink has a complex flavour that beats the hell out of anything you can buy at Starbucks. It contains a shot of espresso made from Elsabet's blend of Ethiopian beans, boiled the same way it was made on her grandfather's coffee plantation in Ethiopia.

In fact, the restaurant name, Keeffaa, is an alternate spelling of Kaffa, the place in Ethiopia where coffee originates, says Elsabet. She likes to combine espresso with different flavours, like ginger, mint or cayenne.

When it comes to cooking, Elsabet blends the techniques of Italy, where she lived in her teen years, with the influences of her mother, who was a culinary healer in Ethiopia. The menu is also influenced by the preferences of the customers, who gravitate towards vegan and gluten free options. Some dishes are better than others, but the ones that succeed are truly memorable. 

Elsabet's papaya salad will change the way you think about the fruit. It's a savoury dish served warm and torqued up with ginger, garlic, lime, sweet syrup and her trademark "Ethiopian cayenne" blend of cayenne, sea salt, sundried garlic and cardamom. "I've never had papaya like that," enthused one regular customer.

The vegetarian planner ($12) comes served on a tray of injera—Ethiopia's spongey, addictive flatbread—which is made out of fermented teff, a type of African grass used to make flour. On top are chunks of kale, beets, lentils, yellow split peas and a fiery tomato salad.

The restaurant closes at 7pm, so make sure you head there early—and don't wait too long. Keeffaa is best visited while the weather is still warm enough to enjoy the beautiful back patio. 

Thanks to Mike D. for the tip. 

Keeffaa Coffee is open Monday to Saturday, 9am to 7pm. It's located at 368 Queen Street East, just east of Parliament. Tel: 416 349 0900.

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