Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Nyala African Cuisine


I was pretty excited about visiting Nyala because it would be my first encounter with African cuisine. The owner told me the place was originally a Chinese restaurant, but he added bits of African decor when he moved in. There were a couple of tall giraffe statues by the door and another set near the bar, as well as a few African drums hanging on the wall.


The first dish we tried was an appetizer called biltong with tomatoes ($9.75). The owner explained to us that biltong is a meat jerky, made with beef in this case. Biltong is a cured meat, but from the appearance it looked like regular stir-fried beef. When I started chewing, I realized the texture was very chewy and a lot tougher than it looked. Interestingly it still retained quite a bit of moisture and didn't taste dry at all. The tomatoes were peppered with chili powder and were the perfect match for the biltong.


After we gobbled down the appetizer, we were given a plate with 2 salads: the tabouleh on the left, and the azifa lentil salad on the right. We were told the salads came with the entrees we ordered. The tabouleh is a salad common in the northern region of Africa such as Morocco and Egypt. It's made with chopped parsley, fresh mint, green onions, tomatoes and cracked wheat, and seasoned with olive oil and lemon juice. The azifa is an Ethiopian salad made with brown lentils, onions, black pepper, mustard, vegetable oil and fresh herbs. Both salads were delicious and unique in their own way. The tabouleh had a stronger herb flavour because of the parsley and mint, while the azifa tasted a bit more subtle with a hint of sweetness from the onions.


Then it was time for the entrees. When we were looking through the menu, we were told that anything with "tibs" in the name is mild and "watt" is spicy. We ordered a fish dish, a chicken dish, and a vegetarian dish for a balanced meal. In my opinion, the tastiest entree of the night was the yasa watt ($20.50), fresh fish that was browned in oil and cooked in a thick tomato sauce with garlic, onion and aromatic spices. We asked for it to be made as mild as possible, so it wasn't spicy at all. The fish was the most tender I've had at a non-Chinese restaurant. Usually Chinese restaurants steam cook the fish, resulting in a smooth and tender texture, while Western restaurants typically grill the fish, making the meat much firmer and less tender.


The chicken dish called yedoro tibs ($18.95) was very similar to Chinese stir-fried chicken. Both the chicken and fish were served on hot skillets, so the ingredients were still sizzling when served. The chicken was not bad, but it lacked slightly in flavour and paled in comparison to the tasty fish.


The vegetarian tikil gomen ($13.50) was the least impressive dish. It was simply a mix of vegetables including carrots, cabbage and onions stir-fried together. It tasted just like home-cooked veggies.


Each entree came with a serving of rice. The rice was not regular white rice, but a yellow South African rice with raisins. Interestingly the raisins were not completely dried; they tasted like slightly dried cooked grapes without any sweetness. In fact, I couldn't tell they were raisins at first and thought they looked more like olives. The rice was well cooked, soft and fluffy and seasoned nicely.


For dessert we tried the pecan brandy tart ($7), a traditional South African cake made with pecans and a touch of brandy. It's interesting that it was called a tart, but was actually a soft and moist cake with a light texture. It reminded me of the Tortuga rum cakes from the Caribbean, probably because of the taste of alcohol in both. It was served warm just like brownies with dollops of whipped cream. The dessert was interesting as a cultural experience, but it really wasn't that great judging by taste alone.


The dinner was a venture into the cuisine of another culture, and in that sense it was fully enjoyable. But given the high prices, the restaurant doesn't seem suitable for regular casual family dinners.

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