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Abyssinia (Ethiopian/Eritrean, Santa Rosa, CA)

November 22nd, 2008 · by Cyndi · No Comments

Some comfort foods come from childhood (the one that fills my soul is very soft, very slow cooked scrambled eggs over buttered whole-grain toast, something I can no longer have) and others are with you all along but hidden until you happen upon that food.  My adult-found comfort food is Ethiopian.  The sour spongy bread wrapped around legumes cooked long and creamy in unfamiliar spices.

So when I heard an Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurant was finally opening in Sonoma County, I had to go.  It took a while–it actually opened in early 2008, and another I never made it to was open briefly before it–because eating out regularly was the first thing we cut from our budget as money got tight.  But after a bad day Thursday, when I had an appointment near Michael’s office, I emailed him and said that after the appointment I was picking him up at work and we were going to lunch.

Abyssinia Restaurant
913 4th Street, Santa Rosa, CA
(707) 568-6455
Hours: M-F 11am – 3pm; 4:30pm – 9pm (closed Tuesday)
Sat 9:30am – 10pm; Sun 9:30am – 9pm

Vegetarian Combo

Vegetarian Combo

I’ve eaten in perhaps a dozen different Ethiopian restaurants in my time and they’ve ranged from barely passable to excellent.  My current favorite is Café Eritrea D’Afrique in Oakland, CA.  For the most part, they all have very similar dishes: Injera (the bread) served with we’t (meat or legume/vegetable spiced stews, also spelled wat or wet or wot).

Before I knew I was gluten-intolerant, I took a friend with celiac to Cafe Eritrea and she made sure that their injera was made from teff (a non-gluten African grain) only.  When they said it was, she tasted a bit and waited 20 minutes.  She is so gluten sensitive that she would have known by then.  She then ate a full meal (and many others on different occasions) and never had any symptoms.

I’d encountered wheat flour in some injera recipes (and even some restaurants) but assumed it was a Westernization of traditional cuisine.  Turns out it’s a valid variation, along with the use of barley flour.  I thought perhaps it was a regional difference, maybe Eritrea vs Ethiopia, but my readings tell me it’s more of a family or personal difference.

In one Vancouver restaurant that used barley flour with the teff, they said the bread was less sour than the 100% teff versions (the woman made a face as she thought about sour injera) and I’ve found this to be true.  Cafe Eritrea’s injera is thick and soft (but with body) and very sour; I love it.  Abyssinia’s injera is made with teff, wheat, and barley and is thin, dense, and with very little sour taste at all.  Both versions are good, it’s a matter of personal preference and of course of food tolerance.  If you can not have barley or wheat, check ahead of time what the injera you’re thinking of getting is made from.

I was disappointed: Miriam and I can eat gluten once in a while without any problems, but I prefer not to and this means we can’t bring gluten or wheat intolerant friends there.  And I really miss the sour stuff; it doesn’t hit my comfort food buttons without it.

Abyssinia is a nice place and it has received a boatload of good reviews.  It’s very clean and white with touches of native art and eating baskets (which I didn’t see in use).  Aside from the staff, I didn’t see anyone in the restaurant who looked like they came from Ethiopia, though I’m not sure how large the community is in Sonoma County so that may not be a true sign.

Our server (who may have been the owner’s son) was accommodating and quick.  We asked for water as we perused the menus.  I wanted hot water with lemon.  Michael asked for regular water.  And Miriam said “warm water.”  Our server obliged with a tray of drinks fit for the three bears.

Water service

Miriam's water is just right

Miriam had expressed an interest in chicken and that’s what Michael wanted too, but the sole chicken dish on the menu (Doro We’t $13.95) came with a hard-boiled egg.  The server said the eggs are already in the sauce but he’d check to see what he could do.  The kitchen was about to start a new sauce and they had no problem doing one egg-free (he seemed to understand that sauce that had touched egg was not safe).

Unfortunately, he mentioned that the chicken was spicy so Miriam refused to even try it, but Michael enjoyed it (and was glad not to have to worry about cross contamination).  He said it was “sufficiently spicy” but not so much that I wouldn’t have been okay with it (I’m a former spice wimp who is fine with medium hot).

Doro We't

Doro We't

I had the vegetarian combo ($18.95 for two, $10.95 for one), which they say is vegan (some of the meat dishes use a spiced butter).  It has a bit of every one of their six vegetarian dishes: garbanzo beans, split yellow peas, two lentil dishes, collard greens, and cabbage/carrot/potato.  Plus some green salad.  Only one was spicy (the lentils (miser) or garbanzos (shiro) on the far left of the plate, see top of page).  The collards had a deep green leafy flavor which was quite good.  Some reviews praise them for not being bitter, but I like that depth in collards.

The we’ts had a flat taste to them, like they lacked salt, though adding salt didn’t help much.  The food was also quite oily.  I’m someone who tends to cook with a fair bit of oil but this put me off.  I’ve had Ethiopian food before that had no oil and it is flavorless.  The excess here might have accounted for the dampening of the spice flavors. Part of the fun with this cuisine is eating the plate, the injera on the bottom that has soaked up the sauces.  But in this case, the injera had little sauce but lots of grease.

Considering Abyssina is only 20 minutes from my home, and 5 minutes from Michael’s work, it made a nice meal and I may go back again.  I can’t say it is as good as the Oakland ones (though those vary a lot as well), but they’re a good hour away.

Parking is difficult but we found a place around the corner.  It’s a few blocks from the center of downtown so there is street parking here and there.  The restaurant is wheelchair accessible and there is no incense or other strong smell.  But the bathrooms had so much air freshener that Michael and Miriam turned away at the door (when a 3 year old is willing to hold it, you know it’s bad).

To see the menu, click on the picture below and use your browser’s zoom function if needed.

Abyssinia Menu

Abyssinia Menu

Other reviews:

The Press Democrat (May 2008)
Chowhound (March 2008)
Yelp

Categories: Food · Restaurant Reviews · SF Bay Area Restaurant
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