Thursday, September 1, 2011
Hartford Food Guy Reviews: Abyssinian
A little while back we featured Abyssinian in our story of a night out in the West End. If you are at all an adventurous eater you need to visit this gem of a restaurant. For a deeper look into the dining experience at Abyssinian we of course looked to the Hartford Food Guy.
Most people know very little about Ethiopia, let alone Ethiopian cuisine. In fact, most of what I do know about Ethiopia is only because I know a good amount about the history of my own people, the Portuguese.
In the 1400's the Portuguese worked very hard to find a route to India by sailing south along the African coast in the hope of finding the southern tip of the continent. There were two reasons for this exploration. The first was that a route to India that did not go through the Mediterranean would allow my ancestors to circumvent the monopoly my wife's Italian ancestors had on the spice trade with the east.
The second was that the Portuguese, like all Europeans, were dimly aware of an ancient Christian kingdom called Abyssinia (Christianity arrived in what is now Ethiopia in the 4th century AD and Ethiopia has a monarchy that can trace its roots to the 2nd century, BC). This kingdom was supposedly ruled by a powerful and pious monarch named Prestor John and the Portuguese hoped to forge an alliance with him.
The Portuguese eventually made it around the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and to Ethiopia in 1508. There was, however, no saintly and mighty king named Prestor John, and although the Portuguese did form an alliance with Ethiopia it was quite the opposite of what the Portuguese had hoped for. Rather than receiving aid in their own wars with the Islamic people of what is now Morocco, the Portuguese soon had to come to the aid of the Ethiopians, who were invaded by neighboring Islamic Adal (which occupied part of what is now Somalia).
I wish I could tell you my knowledge of some of Ethiopia's history is what inspired me to try the Abyssinian, but it's not. The Abyssinian Restaurant is right next door to Monte Alban and is a good example of the three principles of real estate investment - location, location, and location.
I don't know how many times my wife and I walked by the Abyssinian on our way into Monte Alban, but my wife eventually got curious about Ethiopian cuisine, did a little research, and suggested that we go there for dinner. I suspect that's how the Abyssinian gets a lot of its customers, because they don't have a website, they don't advertise, and I don't know that there are enough Ethiopians living in the area to support the Abyssinian without any non-Ethiopian customers. We have been many times since.
Before I start talking about the food I need to make full disclosure about an extremely important aspect of the Abyssinian: the service is bad. Really, really, really bad. They don't have enough people working (I have never seen more than one person in the dining room and I don't know that there is more than one in the kitchen) and the person who runs the dining room really isn't a restaurant person, even though is pretty hardworking and a nice guy. It takes a LONG time to get seated and to have your order taken and the food isn't particularly quick in coming out of the kitchen. My wife and I thus make it a rule to get there before 6 PM and if at all possible before 5:30 PM.
You are now probably asking yourself why you should go a restaurant where there the service is so slow that you need to have dinner at the same time as your grandparents to get in and out in a reasonable amount of time. I know you are, because I was asking myself the same question on Saturday night (we got there at about 6:15 PM) while were waiting, and waiting, and waiting to have our order taken. I don't think we ordered until about 6:45 PM. Mercifully, the food came out of the kitchen at a reasonable pace, but not quick enough to make up for the very slow start..
The answer, of course, is because however bad the service is the food is that good, times about five.
Ethiopian cuisine is very different than Western cuisine. First and foremost, unless you are eating a salad, you don't use utensils. To the extent the food is not something that can easily be picked up, you use a soft, spongy bread to pick it up. This bread comes in large circles, not unlike a tortilla, but it is thick and porous, which allows it to soak up the flavors of whatever it is you are picking up. Second, Ethiopian cuisine is very hot. Red and green peppers and spices abound.
The food itself, on the other hand, tends to be what you'd expect from a pastoral economy; lamb, beef, and goat (no goat on the menu, however), cottage cheese, yogurt, simple greens and vegetables. Chicken also appears to be quite popular and there are also plenty of purely vegetarian meals. Because Ethiopia is a land-locked country, however, there isn't much fish, Abyssinian does have one freshwater fish entree.
Possibly the best way to describe the cuisine is the type of food you'd expect at a Greek restaurant but prepared with the spices and flavors you'd expect if you went to the Shish Kebab House of Afghanistan.
My wife and I were hoping to start with two orders of sambusa ($5.95). A sambusa is very much like a samosa, for those familiar with Indian cooking. For those not, it is a small simple pastry into which are stuffed all sorts of delicious meats, vegetables, and spices.
We wanted an order of lentil sambusas and an order of vegetarian sambusa. The Abyssinian's sambusas are excellent. Tasty and not too heavy, the perfect way to start a meal. Unfortunately, the kitchen wasn't making sambusa on this night so we had to order something else.
We had a lentil salad (yemiser) which consisted of lentils, onions, peppers, and herbs ($5.95). I thought it was good but my wife loved it. The ingredients were all fresh and the flavors combined well. We also had a cottage cheese based dish consisting of fresh cottage cheese (ayb) with collard greens (also $5.95). My wife liked it, but I loved it. I thought the flavors and textures of the collard greens and the cottage cheese offset each other quite well.
For dinner, I had the yebeg wot ($12.95), which is a wonderful concoction of lamb cubes in a spicy and hot red pepper sauce which also includes ginger, garlic, onions, and cardamon. The flavor of the sauce does a great job of contrasting with the lamb and the texture of the sauce definitely offsets the texture of the lamb. The sauce also melds well into the porous bread and really brings it to life with a burst of peppery heat. I have had probably a half-dozen different entrees but this is my favorite.
My wife had the lega tibs ($13.95), which are beef cubes sauteed in onions, a variety of spices, and black pepper. This is one of my wife's favorite meals and I like it as well. Unfortunately, she found her meal just a tad overcooked, but certainly well within the range of what you would eat without complaint. For my part, I also thought it might be just a touch overdone. Frankly, however, it was still quite good.
I can't stress enough how good the food is at the Abyssinian and how it makes the wait more than worthwhile. In fact, eating at the Abyssinian is really an act of faith. You sit there and wait, kicking yourself for not going somewhere with better service hoping that the food justifies the long wait and it always does.
As you can see from the picture, the decor of the Abyssinian is a lot different than what you'd expect at a down-home ethnic restaurant. There really isn't anybrickerbrac and although simple, the place is quite tasteful. My only criticism is the music, but not everyone will agree. There is jazz on a loop, but it is too loud for me and it tends to be a bit up-tempo and frenetic and not particularly relaxing.
The Abyssinian offers desert, but I don't think there is anything more than flan on the menu and given how long it takes to complete a service, we never stick around for desert. It also has a very basic selection of beer and it has also has a small, and pretty pedestrian, wine list. I had a Sam Adams on Saturday, but it really isn't the sort of place you go if you are looking to have a few beers or some wine with dinner.
I acknowledge that the Abyssinian is not for everyone. Ethiopian cuisine is very different than the food most people eat and it is pretty hot and spicy. The service is also a real challenge, which means you either have to re-arrange your dinner schedule or be prepared to wait; things most people generally aren't prepared to do. That said, the food is excellent and if you have an adventurous palette, or are just craving something different, try the Abyssinian. The food is absolutely delicious and you will find yourself richly rewarded for having made the trip.