A popular Ethiopian pop-up restaurant settles in Bushwick

Sam Saverance is an unlikely candidate to own an Ethiopian restaurant. A Texas native with a neatly trimmed beard, Mr. Saverance didn’t even set foot in the African country until 2009.

Under his guidance, however, Bunna Café has flourished. On Saturday, February 8, the Bushwick-based pop-up restaurant will settle into a permanent home at 1084 Flushing Avenue.

“I’m pretty optimistic about the change,” said Mr. Saverance, 36. “We’ve learned a lot about what we want for ourselves from working in different spaces.”

Bunna Cafe foodOver the past two years, those spaces have included coffee shops, pubs, street fairs, even private apartments. Mr. Saverance and his staff prepare the food in an offsite kitchen and serve it out of food warmers, with typical waitstaff delivery.

Part of the draw of Ethiopian dining is the communal experience. All at the table share a single “plate” of injera, a spongy flatbread, dotted like an artist’s palette with various entrées. These dishes can include shiro (ground chickpeas, garlic, ginger), misir wot (red lentils with spicy sauce), and butecha (a vegan stuffing), among others. To eat, one tears off a piece of injera and uses it to grab the selected garnish.

All of the food at Bunna (BOO-na) is vegan. Not only is it easier to prepare, it’s also in line with the religious culture of most Ethiopians. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church prescribes over 150 “fasting” days each year, on which no meat may be consumed.

On a Friday evening in January, in the midst of a polar vortex, Bunna operated out of a bar called The Drink, on Manhattan Avenue in Bushwick. It might sound risky to highlight ethnic food on what could be the busiest shift of the week, but business was as brisk as the wind outside.

“We crushed it that night,” said Adam Collison, the bar’s owner. “From 7 p.m. on, the crowds never thinned out, despite the weather.”

Indeed, one entering from the cold was welcomed by the warm scents of Berbere spice and steamed vegetables. Many patrons paired the exotic food with The Drink’s specialty, a heated cider beverage called wassail — a combination with Brooklyn written all over it.

The pop-up has amassed a cult following, mainly because of the quality of its food, but also because of its inconsistent schedule. “We follow them wherever they go,” said Tanvi Thanki of Greenpoint, who brought two friends. “It’s like, ‘When are we going to get this food next?’”

The Drink Bushwick Bunna Cafe sign

Come for the injera, stay for the DJ.

Mr. Collison appreciates this loyalty. “We found that we had return business from month to month,” he said of his bar, which has hosted several Bunna sessions. “People came to drink having already eaten and realized they had missed out, so they came back hungry next time.”

Recent cold weather has precluded Bunna from holding its coffee ceremony, to many attendees’ disappointment. In this Ethiopian tradition, raw green coffee beans are roasted over coals, with each participant given a chance to inhale the smoke. The beans are then ground and placed in a special pot for boiling. Once the water is ready, the host circles the aroma-filled room, pouring a cup for each person.

When it happens, the ritual is a popular affair, with some people coming just to watch. “At first, there’s a lot of gawking,” Mr. Saverance said, “but we explain the history, and show everyone what to do.” Bunna’s new space will have a special area devoted to the ceremony, called bunna in Amharic, the predominant Ethiopian language.

Mr. Saverance has surrounded himself with a crew of habeshas, or native Ethiopians. His business partner, Liyuw Ayalew, served as a tour guide in Lalibela before moving to the United States to work as a truck driver. Kedija Srage, the head chef, hails from Addis Ababa, the capital. Both now live in Harlem.

Ms. Srage had practical reasons to learn how to cook. “I come from a big family, and I was the youngest,” she said, laughing. “Eventually, after I moved to New York, it just came naturally.”

Even with its new home, Bunna will continue to make appearances in various locations, with a focus on dinner parties and musical performances. In June, Bunna catered Habesha Nights, a gala at a secret location in Brooklyn. Girma Yifrashewa, one of Ethiopia’s foremost pianists, was in town, so Mr. Saverance invited him as a guest.

The evening concluded with a coffee ceremony. As Mr. Saverance made his way around the room with his brew, Mr. Yifrashewa sat down at the piano and burst into Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu in C-sharp minor.

It was a climax of interwoven life experiences and passions. Here was an Ethiopian playing a classic of the western musical canon, while a westerner led one of Ethiopia’s most intimate traditions.

Mr. Saverance is proud of his role in the exchange. “Bringing this culture into Bushwick and seeing people ‘get’ where it comes from — that’s beautiful,” he said. “It’s a very personal thing that we do.”

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