Zigni House, Islington

Do you know why I was able to resort to using flash so I could show you this food? Because there was no-one else in the restaurant, that’s why. This didn’t bode well.

We were actually in the area looking for a Turkish place. As you know, I’m not really one for tramping around up norf but I’ve sploshed up and down the Essex Road twice recently (both times: raining), because I  just can’t resist a budget recommendation. That, and the fact it was an excuse to visit The Mucky Pup, a damn fine boozer and home of my Chilli Cook Off victory (very modest, me). I met The Restaurant Recommender at a food event a few months ago, a food event which did not have much going for it in the way of food. So it happened that polite chit-chat turned into a frenzied slobbering quest to find grilled meat. I was sceptical (I mean, it’s in Islington. We’re talking cheap. This is Islington?) but I remained open-minded, for the first half hour. By the time my canvas pumps were sodden and my hair a frizzed shock, we decided to give it up and go home. I won’t tell you what I ended up eating that night.

This time we knew the location but forgot the occasion – Ramadan. The place is shut for a month. Right next door though was Zigni House, which ticked all the boxes what with it being a) open and b) serving food. Zigni is an Eritrean and East African restaurant. My only previous experience of the cuisine had been at Asmara in Brixton, which was fun but not exciting enough for a return visit.

With every table in the place to choose from, it had to be the funnel-lidded example with woven wicker chairs. Five minutes of creaking and fidgeting put paid to the idea of that being any fun; we moved swiftly across to something more practical. If you’ve never eaten East African food, you should know that what happens is they bring out an injera, which is this brilliant huge pancake full of bubbles like a giant flat crumpet. The batter has an addictive sour taste, which comes from fermentation for a couple of days at room temperature. It’s made with yeast, but you wouldn’t know it because the mix is runny, which allows it to be spread thin during cooking. It’s like a skinny sourdough crepe. In Africa it’s traditionally made with a small grain called teff but in other countries often replaced partly or entirely with wheat flour.

Dishes are served on top of the injera and everyone rips in, using each piece to scoop at the various stews. While you are eating, the juices from each dish are soaking  through the porous surface, making everything tastier as you work inwards; the final, gut-busting stages are the most precious; we’re talking crispy chips at the bottom of the packet stuff here. It’s every woman for herself.

We ordered a variety of meat and side dishes and it fast became apparent that this place was better than Asmara, its South London counterpart (sniffle). Dulet was a ballsy tripe dish, mysteriously fusty but freshened with yoghurt and herbs. More yoghurt arrived as a side dish, strained of excess liquid and whipped; a perfect contrast to dishes like Quanta-Fit-Fit (dried beef and injera pieces in hot ‘Zigni chilli sauce’). The almost biltong-like Zil Zil brought a welcome texture break from saucy stews, its spice rub as addictive as crack. It came with Ajbo Hamli, chopped spinach, cheese and butter. Nice. Other vegetarian dishes were great too; our starter of Timtomo Rolls was injera filled with richly spiced lentils. Kategna was – you’ve guessed it – injera, this time fried, dusted with chilli and slicked with ghee.

At Asmara, everything was a bit samey, like an Indian curry house that uses the same sauce for every dish, adding more or less chilli powder and calling it a different name; at Zigni each dish was bold and surprising. Even the injera was better (more sour) which makes them on to a winner considering it pops up in every other dish.

Why the place was empty I do not know. Okay, so it was Tuesday night and pissing with rain but the reverse-snobbed SE Londoner in me wants to think it’s because the well-to-do people of Islington were all wolfing down meringues in the gorgeous but pricey Ottolenghi then stopping for a cupcake on the way home. This is probably rubbish. I hope for the sake of the owner, Tsige Haile that the place was just a victim of a rainy Tuesday because the food at Zigni is satisfying, unusual and cheap. Did I mention cheap? People of Islington, hear me now! Cupcakes are all style and no substance and anyway, who wants icing on the seat of the 3-wheeler buggy when you can let the precious ones work it out of their systems by pawing at the mighty injera? Deep down, everyone wants to eat with their hands – child or not.

330 Essex Road
London
N1 3PB
Tel: 020 7226 7418
http://www.zignihouse.com

Zigni House on Urbanspoon

Category: African food, Eritrean food, Restaurant Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , 16 comments »

16 Responses to “Zigni House, Islington”

  1. An American in London

    Nice to see both you and Cheese ‘n’ Biscuits in the ‘hood, but I must admit that having spent years in Washington, DC eating Ethiopian food (bc it was cheap and plentiful), I still don’t like injera. Point being that while I’m happy to support anything that’s cheap and good in Islington (as you say – it’s a rare combo), I draw the line at injera-based cuisines. : )

  2. Lizzie

    This place was on my list for ages, and then after our visit to Asmara it came off. I think it was the injera wot did it – I found it too sour and samey. This place looks like it could change my mind though. (mmmm tripe.)

  3. Alex Sheppard

    Argh! Why did I find out about this place two days after I moved from Islington to South London?! Will definitely have to visit soon and try the injera.

    P.S. I lived five minutes from Upper St for 12 years and I’ve never been to Ottolenghi ;-)

  4. Joshua

    I’ve been to Zigni House a few times, not sure why I’ve never blogged it. Love the injera, main reason for me going really.

    Not sure why it’s always so empty empty either, people always seem to head to the bright lights of Upper St instead.

    On a Saturday night, or at least Saturday nights I’ve been, they bring a couple of Ethiopian dancers in who get through a few outfits and a few hectic dances over the course of the evening too.

  5. The Shed

    I live 10 minutes from here and have never been, more the fool me!
    Will rectify soon – was there plenty of choice for a pescetarian man person?

  6. miss south

    Don’t panic! Adulis on Brixton Road is as good, if not better than Zigni House and less bizarre than Asmara can be. And it’s always busy…

  7. Green Onions

    I love Zigni House, have been a few times and much prefer it to the one in Brixton as well. I tend to go the day after a bit to much Gin as been consumed as its the perfect cure and eating with your hands slightly takes the pressure off somewhat.

    Like you I just don’t understand why this place is so empty most of the time, maybe the people of Islington need to move away from some of the chain restaurants in the surrounding area and support local independent eating establishments.

  8. Su-Lin

    Mmmm…. I love injera! I think it reminds me of a VERY strongly fermented dosa. Loved this place when I visited years ago and I’m so happy it’s getting the attention it deserves!

  9. KSalty

    Good find Helen – I’d take that huge injera bread over a cupcake anyday x

  10. msmarmitelover

    Sounds like one to visit!

  11. Steve

    This sounds wonderful. Haven’t had injera for many years. Must try to get down there sometime!

  12. Martha

    Yum!
    Have you tried Adulis (Brixton Road SW9 6BT)? Haven’t been for ages, but remember enjoying it very much!

  13. Gastrogeek

    Can’t believe I haven’t made it here yet- gotta love a culture that has edible tablecloths. And agreed, all food tastes infinitely better when eaten with the fingers.

  14. Jess

    Good spot H, I will have to try it out once I *cry* *sniff* move back up that way. I always used to go to Muna’s up at the top of Green Lanes for Eritrean / Ethiopian dinner. That was great and came with marvellous pickly yoghurt. I think I have mentioned it before actually.

    What’s this Turkish place you’re trying to get to?

  15. Greedy Diva

    I see the words “huge pancake” and giant “crumpet”. That’s all I need to know. Excellent find.

  16. Preppy Pink Crocodile

    Ooooh that looks fantastic!!


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