This family run Eritrean place dishes up spicy, authentic African stews and injera at recession-friendly prices.
Asmara, named after the Eritrean capital, is pretty low key, even thought it's situated on the busy Coldharbour Lane - en route to the increasinlgly popular Brixton market. From the outside you can look straight in on customers eating what looks like pancakes with their hands (you're not far off) and inside it does give off an African feel with its artwork, colourful woven table mats and some wicker furniture amongst the more standard wooden table and chairs. There is also a central bar and an upstairs area.
Asmara is relaxed and friendly, with a homely vibe to it. To such a degree that when the elderly lady explains how to eat the food, she might just tear off a piece of pancake and stuff it into your mouth - no standing on ceremony here. The food arrives pretty swiftly and the staff are more than happy to go through the menu with you and recommend food to your taste. The clientele is mostly younger professionals, with a couple of large parties filling up the smallish space. It is advised to come early on a weekend, as Asmara can get pretty busy.
The food offer consists mainly of sour injera flatbread (like a spongy, lemony pancake) and a variety of warming stews. The starters are simple: injera with butter; soup; and spinach with homemade cheese, as well as a few rice and cous cous side dishes.
Beginners to Eritrean cuisine are recommended the shared messob meat or vegetarian dinner (?32 for two). The messob consists of various dishes from the main and starter menu, including traditional Eritrean coffee at the end. The food arrives with the large injera pancakes covering a communal tray, from which you eat. The stews are then tipped out onto the injera, and you eat by breaking off a piece of pancake and scooping up some stew with it - it's messy and fun.
The messob features spinach and homemade cheese, lentils, chickpeas, mixed veg (beans, carrots and potato), two chicken drumsticks with boiled egg and sauce, a spicy lamb stew and nice chunks of spicy diced lamb with whole green chillies. The dishes are flavoured with a variety of rich spices, though they are not as hot as many Indian dishes. A lot of the dishes do look like a pile of brown mush (so are hard to identify) and some do seem very similar in flavour, but that's probably because Eritrean cuisine often uses the same spice mixture (berbere) in their various dishes.
The lentils and thick chickpea stew are both very good, with the taste of the pulses coming through the delicate spices. The chicken dish is lovely too, with a nice texture from the boiled egg, tender chicken and a nice tomato-based sauce. The homemade cheese is reminiscent of cottage cheese and is very lightly crumbled over - and mixed in with - the spinach. It's certainly a filling meal, which perhaps explains the absence of desserts on the menu.
Again, it's a simple menu, with additions of local bottled beer and house wine. The latter (?4 for a glass) has clear notes of honey to it and is slightly on the sweet side. The Castel beer (?4) is of the pale lager variety; crisp and very refreshing. Make sure you have the traditional coffee ceremony at the end of your meal. The coffee is served in a traditional clay pot with straw stuffed into the mouth of the pot. The straw prevents the granules from ending up in your dinky little cup (which is more like a thimble) upon pouring. Interestingly (and rather surprisingly) a large wicker basket filled with salty popcorn comes with the coffee. According to the waitress this is the traditional Eritrean way to serve coffee. The coffee is served without milk and is very thick and strong but not in the slightest bit bitter. The coffee has a hint of cinnamon to it and is very pleasant. Burning incense arrives alongside, and is placed at the table to add to the atmosphere.
The Last Word
If you're in the area and the queue outside Franco Manco is too much, do give this little place a try instead - it's well worth it. Asmara is a great introduction to Eritrean cuisine with intriguing food at good prices - plus the food sharing aspect makes it a great social experience.