BY BRUCE DEACHMAN, OTTAWA CITIZEN
Monday, May 21, 2012
Sambuza Village’s stewed goat is wonderful and its breads and pastries are delicious, Bruce Deachman says. Photograph by: BRUNO SCHLUMBERGER , THE OTTAWA CITIZEN
2019 Bank St. 613-523-4242
Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., closed Mondays
$5-14 per main dish
Despite the difficulty in accessing it from either side of Bank Street, Sambuza Village boasts a lineup at its cash around dinnertime. On a warm evening, some of those customers are neighbourhood youngsters looking to slake their thirsts with a Mr. Freeze from the small ice cream cooler near the door. But for the most part they’re long-time, loyal fans of the Somali restaurant where, according to its takeout menu flyer, “the taste of the Horn of Africa and North America meet.”
(In fact, a very informal straw poll with patrons on a recent Saturday suggested that many of owner Mohamed Mohamud Elmi’s customers are former residents of the Ledbury Park area where the restaurant is located, who faithfully and regularly return, as well as diners who drive over from Hunt Club and Greenboro.)
Regardless of how and from whence they arrive at this too-brightly-lit, two-room hole in the wall — or, more accurately, hole in an 11-storey wall, as Sambuza Village sits on the ground floor of an apartment building like a tuck shop or dry cleaners — they’re most certainly here for the food: tender chicken, beef and goat, flavoured with cumin, cardamom and paprika; soft warm breads that very nearly melt in your mouth; and sambuzas that rival any samosas in the city.
Occasions when Elmi is serving are best. He knows his food, even if he’s not completely forthright about it. “Oh, this?” he says, when asked about the dollop of spicy tomato sauce that accompanies the perfectly cooked basmati rice. “This is our special spicy sauce.”
First, however, he’s delivered the salads that are sides to our chicken brochette and goat dishes. “I bring this first,” he says, “to make sure you have some salad, because once you try the goat, you will not want to eat anything else.”
This is true on a couple of counts. The large hunks of stewed goat are wonderfully tender and easily capable of making you ignore most salads. In addition, the salad is an unexceptional collection of iceberg lettuce, cucumber, carrot and underripe tomatoes that, a nice creamy dressing notwithstanding, is the bane of takeout restaurants the world over.
The chicken brochette, meanwhile (and do not be fooled by the photo on the menu board that shows some colourful vegetables in between the pieces of chicken; the brochettes here are all chicken, all the time), served with a tangy green chili sauce, boasted a deep-fried crispiness on the outside, but was tender after that, and flavourful throughout.
Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for the king fish, which arrived dry and overdone, although none the worse for it in terms of piquancy; it still tasted mighty fine.
Sambuza Village’s most outstanding dishes, though (though I did not try the steak-and-spaghetti platter, presumably the North American part of the aforementioned East-meets-West collision), are its sambuzas and sabayah wraps. The former, served with decent if unremarkable fries, were perfectly cooked, the pastry flaky but not dry, the savoury chicken filling warm, spicy and inviting. The sabayah (bread) wrap, in this case with sweetly spiced beef, was outstanding, the pita-like bread manna enough for a meal on its own.
The place is unlicensed, so those who choose to eat in will have to make do with pop, juice, tea, coffee (when available, see below) or water.
The dessert is halwa khayrta, named after the restaurant’s chef — and Elmi’s wife — Khayrta Alawi. It’s a sweet made of sugar, cornstarch, oil, nutmeg and cardamom. Think of candied ginger, but with cardamom instead. Sold in one-, half- and quarter-kilogram blocks, it’s best taken home.
Additionally, Sambuza brews a spiced coffee, but had none left on the pair of visits I made.
“It’s more of an afternoon thing,” one waiter said on my first visit. On the second, Elmi assured me he’d make some, but when I’d finished eating said simply, “We’re out. I promise you one next time.”
A disappointment, for sure, but I’ll hold him to it.
Editor's note: This story appears in the May 17, 2012 print edition of the Ottawa Citizen.