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RESTAURANT REVIEW: Bayu

A meal at Bayu
A meal at Bayu
Kevin Leap

There’s a first time for everything. Your first kiss, your first speeding ticket, your first attempt at escargot, and then there’s your first go-round with Ethiopian food. A quick web search will come up with 13 local places, primarily situated in central San Diego with the obligatory one in La Jolla. Most are off the beaten path which makes them more destination restaurants as opposed to “we happened on this cool place.” Well…we happened on this cool place.

Bayu recently took over the space previously occupied by Café Bleu on University Avenue between 5th and 6th Avenues. That particular block hosts a couple Thai restaurants, an Afghan eatery and a few Vietnamese places, so Bayu is right at home with its fabulously spicy and flavorful dishes. Located dead-on in front of a bus stop on one of the busiest blocks in Hillcrest, this place is hard to miss.

Upon entering, a simple bar to your right takes up about a quarter of the room with a sparsely furnished dining area filling the rest. Decorative, colorful baskets in various forms rest on every table taking up most of the surface. Clearly these will serve a purpose. It is not unusual for Reem, the owner of Bayu, to warmly greet you and take you to whatever table suits your pleasure. Bayu is a lifelong dream for Reem and she beams with pride while sharing stories about the food and her homeland. Best of all, Reem’s Mom is the chef. If you’ve not done Ethiopian before, how much better could it be than having someone’s Mom whip up a batch for you?

The menu is simply stated and offers a glossary to explain and help you understand the unique Ethiopian cuisine, flavorings and heritage for preparation and eating. Injera, is the African version of bread is a main component at every meal. Injera has more of a spongy texture, similar to a thicker version of a crepe. All food orders are brought out on a single layer of Injera, with baskets full of the rolled delight served on the side. Get ready to enjoy as this is not only the foundation of your meal, but also the only utensils you will be allowed.

One of the charming aspects of traditional Ethiopian dining is that everyone shares from a common plate to symbolize loyalty and friendship. Took us a minute to realize that all of our orders were delivered together on one monstrous dish, but once we figured it out, we happily explored the entire table-sized tray of offerings. So you have a plate of Injera, a good 20 inches in diameter, piled with your entrée orders, and a side of rolled Injera to tear apart and use as spoon, fork and knife. You “grab” the food with the Injera and pop it in your mouth. It’s almost like creating mini tacos but there is nothing south of the border about it. This is fun, interactive and engaging. Ladies, make sure you get your nails done first as they’ll be front-and-center.

The menu is surprisingly broad with appetizers like Azifa (lentil salad with chopped onions and green chilies seasoned with ginger, garlic, white pepper, lemon and mustard seed and served cold - $6) and Meat Sambosa (crisp pastry shells stuffed with seasoned ground beef, diced sautéed onions and green chilies-$6.50). The Azifa was such a wonderful surprise. Refreshing like no salad we have had and when spread on the Injera, a culinary delight. It’s not really a salad either. More like a puree of delectable ingredients creating a somewhat grey, but fantastically delicious taste treat. The sambosa was a crafty, crunchy bit of joy with a crispy and flaky exterior with warm goodness inside. Kind of like an Indian Samos but more robust with less batter used. We knew we were off and running.

Entrees include vegetarian, chicken, lamb and beef dishes in distinct unique combinations of flavors, textures and seasonings. We selected the Sega Wot which is spicy beef stew of very lean beef slowly simmered in berbere sauce and kibe with Ethiopian spices $11.95. Enter glossary, berbere is made with red pepper and numerous herbs and spices and the source of the deep dark color in all Ethiopian foods. Kibe is pure clarified butter seasoned with several Ethiopian herbs and spices and is used in a majority of dishes. The Yebeg Alecha (mild succulent lamb stew made with onions, green peppers, garlic, ginger, curry powder and traditional spices - $12.50) arrive as part of the plate of Injera, and these two dishes dazzled. Warning, when they say spicy, they mean spicy, but wow the flavor was astounding. Both meats in the dishes were perfectly braised and bathed in rich, unique sauces. The food was simply amazing and healthy. No heavy breads or pastas to weigh a guy down. Ok…we put away at least a pound of Injera.

Ethiopian wines are served and be sure to give them a try. The consistency and bouquet of the varietals are different than the usual chardonnay or cabernet but order what sounds most familiar and then allow yourself to step out of the box. You’re gonna need to leave the snob in you home here. This is not Napa quality, but I bet the Ethiopian food in the wine country ain’t that great either. Crossing our fingers for a little wider selection of libations here in the near future.

The service at Bayu is really spotty as with many new restaurants opened by people with a passion and not necessarily experience. During our two visits, we were either doted upon or completely ignored. Neither time was out of boredom or rudeness. Sometimes they clearly want you to feel at home, and others, they want you to be free to enjoy the company of your dinner companions and relax. A happy medium of hospitality and quiet attentiveness would make Bayu almost perfect. That and a few little design tweaks here and there.

We were able to chat with Reem for a bit while we were there and her story is wonderful to hear. The wine is from Ethiopia, the baskets are from Ethiopia (and having trouble with a U.S. embargo, it’s always the little guy who suffers) and so are the spices. It is this real family ambiance with Reem hosting, Mom cooking and her Grandmother as the inspiration that makes Bayu excel. You cannot help being enrapt by the warmth. We saw many a passerby stop and look at the menu, just as we did, and we literally almost reached out and told them to come in and feast upon Bayu. We know we will be back for more.

The good – so great to find a new way to enjoy food

The bad – Service needs polishing

Details »
  • City: San Diego
  • Phone: 619-269-6142
  • Name: Bayu
  • Address: 530 University Ave