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. 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 time of year – Ramadan. The place = 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, and we moved swiftly across to something more practical. If you’ve never eaten Ethiopian/Eritrean 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. 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 addictive. 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 a rubbish 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
Tel: 020 7226 7418