At Tsion Café, a Lifetime of Wanderings-The New Yorker
. The Harlem restaurant is at its most interesting when different cultures that the owner has experienced—Ethiopian, Middle Eastern—come together in her excellent dishes.
History percolates just about everywhere in Harlem. At 148th and St. Nicholas, there’s a long basement that used to be home to Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, a joint frequented by jazz musicians, where Charlie Parker and Malcolm X once worked. These days, the hen-shaped sign that hung above the door is gone, replaced by an image of a smiling angel, more suitable for a place that’s now named for the center of a holy land: Tsion Café.Beejhy Barhany, Tsion’s co-owner, can usually be found behind the counter of this Sugar Hill restaurant. Her smile belies her journey. When she was a child, she and her family, who are part of a deep-rooted community of Ethiopian Jews called Beta Israelis, left East Africa on foot to get to Israel. When they arrived, they faced discrimination because they were black. Almost twenty years ago, Barhany decided to move to America, because she appreciated its diversity, and in 2014 she opened Tsion, transforming the Chicken Shack into a beautiful art-filled nook lined with blue banquettes which leads to a sunny back yard.
The excellent food at Tsion reflects Barhany’s wanderings. There are traditional Ethiopian dishes, including a delicious version of tibs in which soft filet mignon is sautéed and served over a fluffy pancake of injera bread. From her Middle Eastern days, there’s malawach, a type of flaky pancake, which comes with spicy awaze sauce or drenched in honey and dusted with coconut flakes.
Tsion is at its most interesting when different cultures that Barhany has experienced come together in her dishes. Both the Addis Eggs (spicy scrambled eggs with onions and jalapeños) and the Tsion Eggs (scrambled eggs with smoked salmon) are folded into pockets of injera that serve as perfect vehicles for moving food from plate to mouth, and for mopping up any remains. For those who don’t like injera, a chicken tibs can be ordered with tomato-infused jollof rice, from West Africa. To drink, have the tart ginger tea, cold in the summer and steaming hot in winter.
True to the building’s roots, there’s still lots of music here. Much of it is jazz—the most popular nights feature the Grammy Award-winning tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery—but Tsion has also hosted open mikes for poets and singers as well as for indie and folk acts. In the corner is a small library, with works by the likes of W. E. B. Du Bois. Barhany says it’s a way of giving back, and honoring the history of this long basement on St. Nick. (Dishes $11.25-$32.) ♦