Since ancient times, spices have been at the heart of Indian cooking. Utilising these flavours, Tabla Restaurant, located near Bole Dildy and Medhane Alem Church on Cameroon Street, is a recent addition to the handful of Indian restaurants in Addis Abeba. Having opened on February 19, 2010, it artfully combines the varied tastes and aromas of different spices to create a kaleidoscope of exotic flavours.
The restaurant’s exterior is beautiful, with the name “Tabla” written in large letters in yellow string lights on the outside wall, although, the “T” is not currently lit. Tabla refers to an Indian drum, and inside patrons can listen to the drum, as part of the classical Indian music playing in the background. It is not intrusive at all, just loud enough to create a relaxed atmosphere.
“We chose that name because it makes people feel good to hear the music that the instrument makes,” Srinivas Darikibati, general manager and co-owner, told Fortune.
Darikibati came to Addis Abeba nine months ago to start the restaurant with four partners, who also have other investments in town. Previously, he had a restaurant in the northern part of India.
The food is “typically Indian,” said Darikibati, who is also from Northern India. In addition to the chef, he is the only person at the restaurant, including 23 employees, who is not Ethiopian.
On the evening of Thursday, September 16, 2010, the tandoori chicken (75 Br) is, unfortunately, finished. The chef, by way of the waiter, asks if tikka chicken will suffice.
The chicken tikka (58 Br), pieces of de-boned chicken marinated in spices and yogurt and roasted in a clay oven (called a tandoor), appear as a hot brown and green stew in a white bowl. The chicken is soft, saucy, and a little sweet and citrus-like with a mild bite.
The chef’s special, in this case, bhuna ghost (64 Br), is, likewise, mildly hot. Each piece of soft mutton kebab (skewered, cooked meat) requires about three bites and is sumptuously moist on the inside. Orange in colour from the spices accompanying the curry, the meat has a nutty and tangy flavour and is served with a red chilli sauce on the side.
Another curry speciality of vegetarian inclination, sabzi makni (50 Br), which means “green stir-fry,” contains fresh carrots, peas, and green beans. It is unexpectedly hot, while the look of the tart brown sauce in which it is served might be off-putting. A heap of aromatic, steamed white basmati rice (20 Br), served with shredded, fragrant parsley, goes a little way in tempering the burn, but it lingers on one’s lips for a while after the last bite has been swallowed.
It is hot spices, like these, that create a burning sensation which releases endorphins that act as the body’s natural painkillers and give rise to pleasurable sensations, according to experts.
In stark contrast to the explosion of flavour in the food, the decor of the restaurant is subdued. With the exception of the reception hall, which has warm orange walls and a framed picture of Ghandi, the restaurant itself is furnished in a minimalist fashion.
Each of the simple four-seat tables is made from dark, smoothly polished wood. The chairs are of a similarly straightforward design and are comfortable, despite the lack of cushions. Brown as well as brown and white striped tablecloths cover the tables where the food is served in elegant, white porcelain crockery.
Tabla is open seven days a week, from 12:00pm to 3:00pm for lunch and from 7:00pm to 11:30pm for dinner. However, at around 8:30pm on a Thursday evening, there are not too many customers, with only about four tables full.
“Saturdays are our busy days,” said Darikibati.
There is a big white projector screen on one wall, which has mostly been used for special sporting events such as the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA) World Cup last June and Indian Premier League (IPL) Cricket Tournament last March. Both behind the bar and in the windows, there are some posters, mostly of footballers and football fans in stadiums. The rest of the walls are quite empty, so as not to distract guests too much from either their food or their company, just like the music.
Behind the big, semicircular bar in the centre of the restaurant are four liquor bottles on display in glass shelves, flanked by two glasses appropriate for such drinks. It is pricey, though, as a local beer will set one back 18 Br and soft drinks cost 13 Br.
As with many higher end restaurants, a 10pc service charge is added to the bill before the 15pc value-added tax (VAT). Yet, the service is friendly and fast. It takes about 10 minutes for the food to arrive.
While Indian food goes superbly with rice, a popular alternative is nan (10 Br), a kind of flatbread, usually prepared with yeast and yoghurt. Fresh from the clay oven, it is soft, warm, and slightly charred with a nutty aroma. It is ideal for scooping up food with.
In addition, the nan can be stuffed or seasoned with butter (12 Br), garlic (15 Br), or chilli (18 Br), and many other varieties of flatbread, like kulcha, paratha, and roti, are available, as well as spicy biryanis, including vegetable (54 Br), chicken (68 Br), and mutton (69 Br).
Apart from spices, a favourite ingredient is homemade cottage cheese (paneer), which forms the base of one of the desserts, rasgulla (32 Br). The popular sweet treat is made from balls of cheese and dough cooked in syrup. The three small round white balls are super sweet and sugary, sponge-like and a little chewy.
A less sweet variety is the milk-based pista ras malai (32 Br), which consists of two bright yellow-coloured flattened balls of paneer, soaked in malai (clotted cream, or, in this case, milk powder) with a lemony, eucalyptus flavour from cardamom.
While the combination of spices are a delight to the palate, the milky sweetness provides some welcome relief from the burn, but, at the same time, signals a not-so-welcome end to a meal one wishes might carry on for longer, to the tune of a tabla drum.
The friendly service at Tabla conjures up feasts like these in no time.