Dec 2, 201012:00 AM
Our weekly blog on the New Orleans fine dining scene
Photo courtesy of Robert Peyton
Café Abyssinia opened in the early part of November at 3511 Magazine St., though the only evidence from the street is a large sign bearing the colors of the Ethiopian flag between Garden District Shoe Repair and a little soul food/snowball shop. The restaurant is set 30 or so yards from the street and housed in a small space that is clearly a repurposed apartment. The walls have been painted with murals depicting Ethiopia, and the music of that country plays on a small stereo system set up in the apartment’s former kitchen.
The basis of Ethiopian cuisine, literally, is injera. It’s a crepe-like bread typically made from a grain called teff. It’s spongy and slightly tart like a good sourdough loaf, and in Ethiopia, food is often served on a platter layered with injera. Diners tear pieces of the bread off to scoop up morsels of food.
Some years ago I was fortunate to be invited to the wedding of my friends Paul and Azeb. Azeb is originally from Eritrea, a nation to the north of Ethiopia that shares much of its neighbor’s cuisine. Many of Azeb’s relatives, including her mother, came to New Orleans from Eritrea in advance of the wedding, and they spent days preparing the food served at the reception.
I like to consider myself fairly cosmopolitan where it comes to the cuisines of the world, but the food I had at that wedding was revelatory. It started with the injera. It was soft, chewy and tangy, the perfect complement to the often-spicy dishes arrayed on long tables in buffet-style. There were stews of beef, lamb and chicken; vegetables in spiced butter; and all manner of pulses and salads. The thing I remember most about the reception was the hospitality I received from both families, but the food is a close second.
After the wedding, I bought a couple of Ethiopian cookbooks and even ordered some teff flour from an online source. I planned to prepare Ethiopian food in my kitchen, but the prospect of making injera that would come close to what I’d sampled was too daunting. I pined for the food and told myself that the next time I got to Washington, D.C., I’d have at least one meal at one of the city’s reputedly excellent Ethiopian restaurants. Now that Café Abyssinia has opened, I no longer need to travel to get my fix.
Apparently I’m not the only local with a taste for Ethiopian food because there is almost always a line of people waiting for a seat at one of the restaurant’s seven four-seat tables. If I have a complaint about Café Abyssinia, it’s that the service is haphazard. The first time I went, people seated 10 minutes after me were already eating before I was served tea. But it’s a family operation, clearly, and the folks who serve are so friendly that it was impossible to be annoyed. I expect the service to improve somewhat as time passes, but I doubt it will ever be truly professional. If you go in with that expectation, you won’t have a problem.
The menu is divided into appetizers and vegetarian, beef, chicken and lamb entrees. Sambussas are similar to Indian samosas, though the dough used to make the fried pockets is thinner and crispier. The yesiga sambussa is filled with ground beef and onion, and the others are stuffed with lentils or spinach or an excellent potato-and-onion mixture. Sambussas come two to an order and cost $5. The Azifa Salad ($7) is the only other appetizer I’ve tried. It’s a cold salad of lentils with onions, chiles, garlic and lemon in which the acidity of the citrus balances the earthy flavor of the lentils.
The vegetarian portion of the menu features a similar lentil dish served hot, a dish of cabbage and carrots and potatoes and carrots with chiles in a curry sauce. Both the cabbage and potato dishes were excellent with the potatoes standing out. Quartered spuds are cooked with long batons of carrots and sliced chiles, and the potatoes end up mellow and almost sweet. They’re a perfect accompaniment to some of the spicier fare on the non-vegetarian side of the menu.
Doro wot is one of the hallmarks of Ethiopian cuisine. It’s a spicy stew-like dish that at Café Abyssinia is made with chicken legs and garnished with hard-boiled eggs. Kitfo is another traditional dish that combines minced beef with spiced butter and a mix of ground dried chile, cardamom, cloves and salt. It can be ordered rare in the manner of steak tartare or cooked.
I really enjoyed the Tibs, a dish of beef sauteed with onion, garlic and peppers, and the yebeg alicha, which is bone-in lamb meat in a mild sauce flavored with curry, garlic and ginger. Each of the non-vegetarian entrees costs $12.99.
The best way to order at Café Abyssinia is to pick at least one vegetable dish and one meat dish per two diners. The whole order is served on a large platter covered with a pizza-sized disk of injera, with additional bread on the side.
There is no alcohol served at Café Abyssinia, and your best bet is to order a pot of Ethiopian tea or coffee. The tea is spiced with cardamom and cinnamon and costs $1.50 for a one-person pot or $3 for a pot big enough for two to three. Coffee is similarly $2 for a one-person pot and $5 for the larger size. If you really want a drink to go with your meal, Martin Wine Cellar has an outpost almost directly across Magazine Street from the restaurant, and during its hours of operation, you could also stop by Stein’s Deli to choose from their incredible selection of beers.
The restaurant is open from noon to 10 p.m. every day, and you can contact them at 504/894-6238. Although you can generally expect some kind of wait at Café Abyssinia, the food is absolutely worth it.