Reviews and Such Ethiopian Restaurants

Harmans Cafe – Sargent Avenue

Harmans is now closed.

Back when I wrote up Akin’s restaurant, I mentioned that it was one of three restaurants that were part of the same building that houses both Mercadito Latino, and Harmans. Harmans is an Ethiopian restaurant with an interesting history.

Harmans was originally a drug store that stood on the corner of Sherbrook Street and Portage Avenue. and among other things, was famous for its lunch counter. I have to admit, that for all the many times I had heard about the lunch counter I never visited.

Harmans Gomen Besiga
Beef, and collard greens are the main ingredients in this dish.

I’ve been a fan of Ethiopian food for a long time. I can’t remember the name of the first Ethiopian restaurant, the one that was on the opposite side of Osborne below street level. It was on the opposite side of Osborne from where Massawa is now. If you’re a Winnipeg resident reading this, maybe you can shake my memory.

Sometime after Harmans closed for good, one of the cooks, an Ethiopian named Desta Work Negatu, opened Harmans cafe, the name being a tribute to the drugstore and its lunch counter. I remember going not long after the restaurant opened. However, that was close to 10 years ago, several years before I started writing up the restaurants that I visit.

I do remember that the first time I went, I went for breakfast. When Harmans first opened, the restaurant was a mix of Canadian and Ethiopian, and I ordered a standard bacon and eggs style breakfast. Returning several years later, it appears that the Canadian style breakfast has gone and the menu is now entirely Ethiopian. Fortunately, an entirely Ethiopian menu is always a good thing.

Walking in to Harmans you discover that it is split into two sections. These are divided by a low wall with a screen that allows you to see into the other section but still creates a good sense of separation between the two. There are plenty of tables, the kitchen is in the back and you can just see into its entrance way.

One thing to take note of with Harmans is their hours. They are open most days from 9:00 to 2 pm, and then closed again until 4:30 pm, at which point they open again for their evening service.

Dinner Time at Harmans Cafe:

When I first went back to Harmans Cafe a couple of weeks ago, I recognized the group of diners who were arriving at the same time as me, as they were all employees of Tall Grass Prairie, at The Forks. It’s always encouraging when going out to dine to see people who make quality food coming to eat at the place that you are eating.

Harmans House Red
A nice glass of the house red.

I have a variety of Ethiopian dishes that I like. I really enjoy both Doro Wat and Dulet Kitfo. However, this time there was something towards the bottom of the menu that caught my eye. This was the Gomen Bisega, the dish that is pictured at the top of the post. The ingredient that really got my attention was the collard greens.

I’ve been reading a bit over the last year about the ways in which Southern Cooking was influenced by the cooking of the slaves. Michael W. Twitty’s book: The Cooking Gene, being a real fine example.

Harmans Injera
There’s always some extra Injera being served to help scoop up your meal.

When I ordered the dish, I was informed that because the cook, who was also my server, had to start from scratch this dish would take about 25 minutes to prepare. I told her I was willing to wait, and when it arrived, it turned out that 25 minutes was pretty much the time it took(I didn’t use a stopwatch, so it may have been a few seconds or so off).

I really enjoyed this dish. It’s not as spicy as some of the other Ethiopian food you will find. I love Spice, but it’s nice to be able to go through a menu and choose dishes where you can add your own levels of spiciness. The menu does say that the dish included Jalapenos, but they didn’t add a whole lot of heat to the dish.

Harman's Spices
Both meals I had at Harman’s came with this trio of spice. The Red Berbere is the hot one among the group.

One thing with Ethiopian dishes is they offer a nice set of condiments. There is the fiery hot Berbere, and the milder but still reasonably potent T iqur Qarya Awaze, and Ayib, Ethiopian Cottage Cheese, which helps to cut the heat from the other spices.
Given that it was getting later in the day, I decided against coffee and choose the house red wine.

It wasn’t a particularly remarkable wine, but at $4.00 for a glass, this was a nice, pleasant addition to my meal. As leisurely as the service was, so was my ability to enjoy my meal. There was never a rush, though the owner/cook made sure to check in from time to time to make sure that everything was still fine.

Back for Breakfast:

A couple of days after I had stopped in for Dinner, I made a trip back to have breakfast. As I mentioned earlier in the post my memory of breakfast at Harmans was the traditional North American breakfast. Ordering dinner, I hadn’t checked to see if this was still available. So, unless I received a menu with that page missing, there doesn’t seem to be a North American breakfast option available. Again, that’s not a bad thing.

Harman's Quanta Firfir
Quanta Firfir for my breakfast at Harmans..

I chose the top item on the menu, Quanta Firfir. This is a mixture of dried beef along with a quite spicy sauce, and bits of Injera throughout. Like my supper this came with the spice choices for condiments, but on this one I didn’t use any of them as I found this dish plenty spicy. The dried beef is a little bit like beef jerky so you get a bit of chewiness with your dinner.

I like Injera, but I did find with this dish, that with Injera mixed in, Injera on the side, and Injera as an underlying, edible platter to the meal that it was a little bit more Injera than I wanted in one sitting. Still the flavours are great and this dish will get your morning off to a rousing start.

Of course if you want coffee for breakfast at an Ethiopian restaurant, your best bet is to go for Ethiopian coffee prepared in the traditional fashion. I’ve had the chance to observe the Ethiopian coffee ceremony in action while attending the Ethiopian Pavilion at Folklorama.

Harman's Ethiopian coffee
My pot of coffee on the tray with my cup.

While the coffee was prepared in the traditional fashion it was actually prepared in the kitchen at the back, so I didn’t get the opportunity to watch it being made. When it was brought to me, it was on a decorated tray. What surprised me, because I hadn’t seen it before, was that there was also a dish containing several sticks of incense. While I try to enter into the spirit of such ceremonies, I did ask for the incense to be removed as such smoky kind of things tend to nauseate me.

Harman's Coffee
My demi-tasse of coffee. I go five or six of these out of the pot that came to my table at Harmans.

Nonetheless, the coffee itself was very good. I generally take my coffee black, but with the strength and acidity of this coffee I added a little bit of sugar to each of the cups as I drank them, which nicely took off a bit of the edge.

Harmans is a great place to go for a meal. The food is top notch, the atmosphere is quite pleasant, and the service is friendly and attentive.

By Donald McKenzie

Anglican priest, and food blogger. This blog is focused on Food. It will feature reviews of places to eat books, and the odd recipe. I also write about what it means to gather together around food.