Vegan Bunna Cafe Finds a Home for Some of NYC's Best Ethiopian
We have a long history, Bunna Café and I. Way back in November, when it was just a pop-up operating out of the bar it has now taken over, Mama Joy's, I trekked up one evening only to discover that Bunna only served lunch (I wrote about nearby Il Passatore instead).
Then, one frigid day in early January, I gave it a second go, only to be met with the sight of a totally gutted, and shuttered, space (I wrote about Falansai, just down the street, instead). But at least I was on the right track: turns out Bunna was renovating its space on Flushing Avenue in East Williamsburg in preparation for becoming a full-service restaurant, and I was confident that the next time I returned I would finally be able to eat a meal there—and tell you all about it.
You know that old chestnut, "It was worth the wait?" I can't think of a better phrase to apply to the soulful, vibrant, surprising vegan Ethiopian fare served at Bunna. If you've eaten your fair share of Ethiopian food in the city and you enjoy and find it all kind of tastes the same, then you'll be delighted by Bunna's takes on standard dishes such as misir wot, or spicy red lentils, and tibs, highly seasoned and seared chunks of meat that at Bunna take the form of smoky caramelized mushrooms.
There's a pronounced emphasis on freshness in Bunna's stews and salads: raw vegetables are mixed with cooked, bringing lightness to the meal, and sharp notes of garlic, ginger and onion punctuate the softer flavors of curry powder and sunflower-seed milk.
Bunna has a focused menu of three appetizers and nine mains. In the Feast for Two ($28), you can sample all nine mains arranged on one heaping platter lined with injera, that spongy teff-flour flatbread that acts as your serving utensil throughout the meal. Bunna's version is soft, nicely seasoned and tangy but not too tangy, a flavor that can sometimes turn people off of injera.
At the center of the plate, Duba Wat, or sweet pumpkin cubes, is perfectly tender, the sweetness toned down by a thick, subtly spicy sauce laced with berbere, a spice blend prevalent throughout Ethiopian cuisine containing chili peppers, garlic, ginger, nigella seeds and fenugreek, among other flavorings.
Pictured at twelve o'clock are two types of lentils: the aforementioned Misir Wot, or red lentils, fully cooked but still slightly toothsome and also flavored with berbere; and Yater Kik Alicha, split yellow lentils that are softer and creamier in texture and bold in their flavors of fresh ginger and garlic and earthy turmeric.
Pictured at 1 o'clock are two of the standout dishes of the night: at left, Kedija Salata, or kale and avocado salad, and the aforementioned Enguday Tibs, seared mushrooms flavored with berbere and rosemary. The slight bitterness of the raw kale is a perfect match for the buttery creaminess of mashed avocado, and both flavors are lightened by plenty of fresh lime juice and raw garlic; and the meaty grilled mushrooms bring texture and heft to the plate.
At 3 o'clock are two more great dishes: Gomen, or steamed kale, and Keysir Salata, or beet, potato and carrot salad. As to the gomen, although the menu lists it as kale, I'm nearly positive it was collard greens: dark, moist and mineral-ly, these greens aren't cooked to death as collards often are. Instead they retain some chew and come with a scattering of tender cooked carrots. The root vegetable salad, slicked with a bright lime dressing, alternates between bites of soft, sweet cooked beets and bright, crunchy raw beets, along with earthy chunks of carrot and starchy sweet potato.
Finally, pictured at 5 o'clock is one of Bunna's more unusual dishes, Yesuf Fitfit, or shredded injera, tomatoes and hot peppers stewed in roasted sunflower-seed milk (as I write this, I realize that I was not served the ninth dish on the menu, ground stewed chickpeas). The starchy injera, when soaked in the incredibly creamy, toasty, nutty sunflower-seed milk, takes on the texture of a porridge: but, as it's served cold, it acta almost like a yogurt raita in Indian cooking, bringing a dairy-like coolness to the fiery flavors across the rest of the plate.
A note on portion size: the incredibly reasonably-priced feast for two was just barely enough food for two hungry people at dinner; for a more filling meal, I'd advise ordering a couple of appetizers, or upgrading to the $39 feast for three. The food here is so good you'll want to make sure to have plenty of it.
About the author: Lauren Rothman once interned at Serious Eats and recently graduated from journalism school. Try the original recipes on her blog, For the Love of Food, and check out her (many) food photos on Instagram.