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Selam Vegan is a totally vegan extension of Ethiopian restaurant Pero situated right underneath it, and entered through Pero’s interior.
Aside from a completely meat-free menu and its subterranean location, the other thing that sets this place aside from most Ethiopian restaurants in Toronto is magnificent presentation, centred around a refusal to plate everything on beds of injera on massive platters.
The windowless basement apparently used to be home to a jazz bar. A stage still lies at one end of the space, decorated with art and reverberating with dance mixes.
Injera ($3) is made in house despite not blanketing any platters, very tangy and spongy to the extreme, made with teff rather than yeast. You might not get as much of it as you normally would at another Ethiopian place but it impacts the flavour of all dishes scooped up with it a little more.
A flax collard appetizer ($7) dusts a puck of earthy, bitter collards chopped finely and cooked until tender with equally healthy-tasting, woody, earthy and nutty pulverized flax powder.
Combos start at $12 for three items and run up to $18 for six, in lieu of usual platter options.
Okra ($12) is more crisp and slightly slimy than cooked down or fried crispy, but nicely accompanied by subtle green onion and pepper flakes.
Carrot and green beans ($10) exemplify good knife work and a simple reverence for these veggies.
Red cabbage ($10) is mildly seasoned with ginger and garlic, cooked out to a lovely ultraviolet colour without losing all the snap to the leaves.
Red lentil ($12) is a vegan Ethiopian classic, the soft grain perfect for scooping with injera and seasoned with a warm, earthy house seven-spice blend, specific to Selam the way tomato sauces can be specific to certain Italian restaurants.
A chickpea dish ($12) also utilizes this special seven-spice blend, a stewy dish with lots of tomato and red onion served in a clay vessel.
Split pea ($10) along with the chickpea and lentil, is one of three popular staple dishes where Chef Pero Berhane is from, flavoured with woody turmeric.
A mojito ($10) is part of a short list of somewhat retro cocktails, sweet, boozy and garnished with a giant sprig of mint.
The obligatory Ethiopian coffee ceremony is $6 for an individual, Ethiopian coffee beans roasted fresh, meaning the beverage is a little more bitter but less acidic. The usual popcorn comes on the side.
Chef Berhane says growing up in Ethiopia in the 60s, it was impossible not to eat vegan: a fact that should definitely be considered when taking into account the way these foods of poverty have been transformed yet respected at Selam.