This week, our restaurant critic Aoife Carrigy checked out one of the coolest new spots in Dublin, Ethiopian restaurant Gursha.
There’s something about a pre-paid supper club that piques both anticipation and appetite. Buying a ticket weeks or months in advance makes it feel more like going to a gig than a regular restaurant meal. In the case of Gursha – Dubliner Mel Roddy’s Ethiopian weekend-evenings pop up in Cloud Cafe – tickets sold so fast for its initial August dates that dates were added right up to December. The plan, Mel tells me, is “to use the supper club to promote the food and learn as much as possible. If there’s the right demand for the food nearer Christmas then we hope to open up our own restaurant sometime in spring. Between now and then we have to keep getting our evenings spot on so that people want to visit us again.”
There’s also something about knowing that this is, for now at least, a semi-professional affair that tempers how you approach a supper club. As Mel’s cousin Ciara Moore put it while serving us last Saturday, Gursha is very much a hands-on family affair, with their extended family getting behind Mel, who was adopted from Ethiopia along with his sisters Susie and Elsa. One of the cooks behind the project is Werke Getachew, who looked after Mel and his sisters as children. “So we all grew up eating this food,” explains Ciara. She has a giddy pride that is infectious - though I was already excited about the meal ahead.
Back in 2013, myself and my photographer friend Aoife Banville travelled to Ethiopia with the support of Irish Aid’s Simon Cumbers Media Fund to research and document a two-part feature for FOOD&WINE Magazine about food-related aid projects in places like Lalibela in the northern highlands, where World Heritage Site 12th-century monolithic churches were carved directly down into the red volcanic rock that the town sits upon. I knew to expect a culturally rich country populated by some of the friendliest – and most beautiful – people you could meet, but Ethiopia proved full of surprises.
We arrived one day after a torturous trek from Lalibela to a remote hut at the edge of our 1,000m ascent. No beer ever tasted as good as the local Dashen lager that I was handed once I had swapped hiking boots for flip-flops (as in, immediately). It was served with crispy pizza topped with tomatoes and garlic, all cooked up in that hut from local ingredients. Though prone to drought and famine, Ethiopia is a surprisingly fertile country with a unique food culture that includes a touch of Italian influence leftover from the briefest occupation.
Every night of that community-run trek, we broke bread with our local hosts. Of course, anyone familiar with Ethiopian food – which is a surprising number of people, thanks to expat restaurants in European and American cities – will know that by ‘broke bread’ I mean ‘tore injera’.
Injera is a fermented sourdough pancake produced from teff, a tiny but nutritious indigenous grain that is high in fibre and protein. (It also produces the fiesty mead-style drink served in shebeen-like ‘tej houses’, home to incredible traditional music, dancing and craic, but that’s another story.) This spongy injera is the basis of the Ethiopian diet – literally. Besides being the staple carbohydrate, injera forms both the plate for serving and vessel for scooping mouthfuls of the various wat, the slow-cooked, richly spiced stews at the centre of most meals.
Ethiopians eat communally from this plate of bread, using their right hand to break off small sections for scooping up the accompanying meat or veg-based wat. (The left hand is considered unclean, being – ahem – reserved for other business.) This one-handed technique takes practice; before young children master it, their parents feed them mouthfuls – or gursha– of injera-wrapped food.
It’s also a very sweet sign of affection to offer a gurshato another adult, as I learned one day in Gondar – a town dubbed the ‘Camelot of Africa’ for all its castles – during Timkat. This Epiphany festival is a highlight of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian calendar, and one of the most joyous street parties imaginable. Everywhere we went, groups of dancing women invited us to party with them. As we passed a spectacularly dressed woman sharing injera outside a local hotel, she offered a gursha to me. Happily, my instinct to accept her offer of friendship won out over my instinct to query the sanitariness of the gesture.
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Two weeks ago we had a trial supper club with the lovely staff of @cloudcafedublin where they tasted and experienced the Ethiopian way of dining. Glad to have gotten positive feedback and we’re excited to have finally found the perfect venue. - We will start hosting our supper clubs in mid August with exact date to be confirmed. Opening on Friday and Saturday evenings, we hope to fill 30 seats per evening. Bookings will be through Eventsmart and a link will be left in the bio next week - Shout out to everyone for the help and support you’ve shown so far, means a lot - #dublinfood #dublin #foodie #dublinfoodie #instafood #food #habesha #irishfood #dublinfoodguide #foodporn #dublinrestaurants #Dublin #discoverdublin #ethiopianfood #dublineats #dublinfoodies #forkyeah #tasty #lovindublin #foodpics #foodstagram #dublinlunch #igersdublin #DublinFood #irish #DublinEats #delicious #dinner #foodphotography #yummydublin
Nobody at Mel’s Gursha pop-up is offering to hand-feed diners. They leave that up to you, while also offering a knife and fork, though most diners seemed to opt for the traditional approach. Having paid our €25pp online, we could choose ‘a la carte’ from any of three meat and six vegetarian dishes offered, or opt for a taster of each, which we did.
In Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, which represents the country’s largest religious population, animal products are off the menu on fasting days (every Wednesday and Friday, plus specific religious days and lenten periods). This means Ethiopian cuisine makes rich pickings for vegans or vegetarians. It also makes for a particularly colourful and appetising array of dishes.
Highlights from Gursha's plant-based dishes included old favourites like misir wat (subtly spiced red lentils cooked with sweet, caramelised onions); gomen (kale with fresh herbs, garlic and green chilli); and shiro wat (split peas slow-cooked to a purée with garlic, onion and berbere spices). Shiro wat is a great vehicle for Ethiopia’s signature berbere spice-blend, which centres on sun-dried chillies with garlic and ginger but might include allspice, coriander, cloves, cumin, fenugreek and nutmeg too. I also loved Gursha’s keysir wat, a warming ginger-spiced beetroot dish, and the turmeric-spiced alichadish of al dente cabbage, carrot and potatoes, both of which were new to me.
Lamb (yebeg) was served two ways: in marinated strips (tibs) with pepper and tomatoes, and turmeric-seasoned cubes (alicha). Of the meat dishes, Ethiopia’s classic pairing of Berbere-sauced chicken and egg – or doro wat – was the winner. It was also the most challenging to eat: well, you try tearing chicken off the bone or breaking off a mouthful of hard-boiled egg with one hand!
Ethiopian spicing tends to be more flavoursome than fiery, but a home-made cottage cheese served to cool things down for those who needed it. The injera was text-book in texture and struck a good balance in terms of the distinctive sourness that comes from its lengthy fermentation. The house white wine (€26) – a generous, tropical flavoured blend of Encruzado, Cereal Branco and Malavasia Fina from Dao in Portugal – was a well-matched pairing.
We were repeatedly offered top-ups of whatever dishes we liked, though I would warn readers that this is deceptively filling food, so it’s easy to overeat. Besides, you’ll probably want to keep room for the (non-traditional) chocolate fudge brownie served as dessert here. Personally I found it incredibly sweet, but my two dining buddies had no problem dispatching theirs, washed down with the dark-roast Ethiopian coffee served to us by the soft-spoken Werke Getachew herself.
Gursha is something of a work in progress. The traditional coffee ceremony that Ethiopia is famed for wasn’t up and running on the evening we visited, which was a pity. Mel explained that they do plan to use a traditional jebena vessel, but for now, they are using a stainless steel coffee pot. But that’s part of the charm of a supper club too: that it is a work in progress, one whose semi-professional team you can get behind as a customer while they figure out where they go next and how to get there. Hopefully for all the many Dublin-based fans of Ethiopian food, Mel and his team are en route to opening a professional place of their own.
The Bottom Line: before a tip, we spent €25 per head for food and €26 for wine.
Cloud Cafe, 43 North Strand Road, North Strand, Dublin 3, D03 E977
Author: Aoife Carrigy
Aoife’s first proper work experience (if you don’t count a formative stint as the milkman’s assistant) was a TY placement as a commis chef in The Wishbone in Glasthule, where she caught the restaurant bug. From her teens and through her 20s she worked front-of-house in restaurants around Dublin and beyond, before a freelance gig as restaurant columnist for the Dublin Event Guide and then Totally Dublin turned into a five-year full-time editorial stint in FOOD&WINE Magazine. She has been freelance since 2010 and keeps herself busy co-writing and editing cookbooks as well as writing on food, drinks and travel. Aoife is WSET-trained and is currently researching a Masters on ‘Cultural Representations of the Irish Pub’ at TU Dublin.