A taste of Ethiopian cuisine at Abyssinia in Santa Rosa
Traditional Ethiopian dining involves an interesting setup: you park yourself on a low-to-the-ground barchuma stool at a multicolored mesob wicker table. The mesob has a domed cover that looks like a mini woven Taj Mahal, and when you remove it, a centerpiece tray awaits with a dramatic array of dishes arranged around African injera flat bread.
Everyone eats from the common tray, usually using their fingers to wrap the meats, lentils and vegetables in the injera. Everyone licks their fingers, then dives in for more.
Clearly, that is not happening at Abyssinia restaurant these days. The long, narrow dining room is barely lit now, and the Western-style chairs are stored atop the Western-style tables. The front door is usually propped open, so we don’t have to touch it with our hands. Packaged takeout orders line the cashier counter in front of the tiny kitchen and share space with the requisite bottle of hand sanitizer and sanitized, laminated menus.
Yet one thing hasn’t changed. The Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine is as mouthwatering as always, brimming with spices and herbs so pungent that I smell their beautiful perfume as soon as I walk through the door.
Normally, you have to travel to San Francisco and its surrounding cities to explore bold dishes like yebeg key we’t of delicate stewed lamb strips spiced with fiery African chiles ($14.95). But since chef-owner Wodeyelesh Merso opened Abyssinia on 4th Street at Brookwood Avenue 12 years ago, we North Bay fans have been able to enjoy everything down to herby-caramel Ethiopian Bedele lager beer ($6.75) or Tej Ethiopian wine made from fermented honey and gesho hops ($25 bottle).
My car smelled so good on my trip home I almost pulled over to tear into the takeout boxes. But I made it to my kitchen and found the presentation isn’t so different from dining in. For my favorite signature Abyssinia combo platter, that meant generous tastings of five entrees placed atop a 20-inch round of injera, plus a side salad ($15.95 for single portion, $26.95 to serve two). The only difference is that several more injera are rolled up on top instead of being served on a side plate.
Injera are like tortillas in Mexico and naan in India. The quilt of unleavened bread is the heart and soul (and utensil) of Ethiopia, as you pair it with pretty much every dish, tearing off pieces to scoop stews or wrap meats. The bread is like a spongy pancake, pocketed with bubbles and tangy with sourdough character from teff, a tiny grain that's ground, mixed with water and allowed to ferment, then cooked over a flat clay griddle.
Ethiopia is all about robust spicing, and Abyssinia sends the stuff out like a thundering crash of cymbals. This is the hottest, most peppery food in all of Africa, with berbere front and center. The fiery spice mixture is usually a blend of hot red peppers, ginger, cloves, coriander, rue berries, sacred basil, Ethiopian cardamom and Ethiopian ajwain caraway. It’s sprinkled on dry or made with lemon and water into a thick paste rub called awaze. The fire is both pain and pleasure, rendering a gentle to angry burn on lips and gums depending on the heat level we requested from the kitchen, followed by relief from sips of semisweet tea spiced with cloves, cinnamon and cardamom ($2.50).
For the combo platter, the variety of stews melds into a beautiful mosaic of spicy, mild, tender and chewy. There’s doro we’t, a spicy chicken leg simmered in berbere paste with garlic, onion and nitre kibe (seasoned, clarified butter), all topped with a hardboiled egg stained with paprika ($15.95 as a stand-alone entrée).
That lounges next to yebeg key we’t, immensely tender lamb cubes simmered with awaze and onion for a slow heat that builds at the back of your throat ($14.95 entrée). Then there’s yebeg alecha, delicately stewed lamb strips singing with garlic, onion, turmeric and ginger ($14.95 entrée). That’s alongside a ladleful of tikel gomen ($11.50 entrée), a rough chop braise of al dente green cabbage, carrots and potatoes spiked with ginger nested in natural juices — cooking carrots with the cabbage lends a pretty orange-yellow color and releases sweetness to reduce any cabbage bitterness.
We’re not done yet. The platter also includes miser we’t, rust-colored lentils in berbere sauce finished with a deep flurry of Ethiopian spices ($11.95 entrée), plus a romaine, onion and tomato salad doused in an oily vinaigrette ($4 a la carte). Servings are large; this is definitely a filling meal.
The vegetarian combo brings a flavor parade, too ($12.95 for single portion, $23.95 to serve two). The rainbow dollops brim with miser we’t; shiro we’t of berbere olive-infused hummus ($12.95 entrée) and yater kik alecha, which is split peas stewed with garlic, ginger, turmeric and green pepper ($11.95 entrée).
This combo also brings yabesha gomen, collard greens cooked to a velvety mound with tomato, garlic and rosemary ($12.95 entrée); miser alecha of lentils stewed with garlic, ginger and turmeric ($11.95) and that savory tikel gomen, plus green salad.
There are so many flavors on display and such speedy service — back in the days of dine-in, it took less than ten minutes for entrees to arrive, and now, takeout is an easy grab-and-go affair — you don’t really need appetizers.
Still, the sambusa are tempting — two empanada-style pastry shells stuffed with ground beef, onion and parsley or whole lentil, onion and green pepper ($7), then lightly fried.
The Special Kitfo is a delicious appetizer adventure, too, in an Ethiopian version of steak tartare ($15.95). The raw meat gets a flavor boost from mitmita (ground African bird peppers, cardamom seeds, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, ginger and salt) and a toss of niter kibe. Then it’s plated with homemade cottage cheese and tender collard greens braised with tomato, garlic and a hint of rosemary. If raw meat is too exotic for your taste buds, you can get the steak cooked medium or well done.
We may not be traveling much this year, but it’s great to know that an African adventure still welcomes us in downtown Santa Rosa.
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.