African cuisine is one of the most neglected in the global market of the American dining scene. Ethiopian food is the bright spot of an exception, albeit one that is still contained to cosmopolitan areas. When Abay (pronounced "uh-by") opened in East Liberty in 2004, owner Jamie Wallace was breaking new ground and taking a measured risk. Fortunately, that risk has paid off. East Liberty is well on its way to becoming Pittsburgh's hottest new dining destination, and this welcoming restaurant has become a neighborhood gathering spot.
Abay's brown walls are graced with small pieces of Ethiopian art. Plain wooden tables put the focus on the food, which over the years has become more sure-footed. Though still distinctly Ethiopian, many of Abay's dishes are more creative interpretations of Ethiopian cuisine, or take inspiration from neighboring countries.
The Sambusas are irresistible ($3.50). Thin, crisp envelopes crackle between the teeth, revealing their earthy, well-seasoned contents. Chicken is moist; lentils are brightened by sharp green pepper.
The Abay House Salad ($4.50) is refreshing and intense. Thinly sliced green and red chile peppers hide among crisp lettuce and perfectly cooked green beans, but sweet cherry tomatoes and a lime dressing provide some necessary relief.
2 1/2 stars = Very good+
Most dishes are made from a fairly small set of staples. Meat means chicken or beef. Vegetarian proteins are lentils, split peas and chickpeas. Kale, cabbage, and green beans recur frequently, playing both supporting and lead roles. Yet, the deft use of Ethiopian spice pastes mitmita (maroon-colored and fairly hot) and awaze (bright red with a more rounded flavor), careful layering of flavors, and perfect seasoning result in several dozen dishes with unique tastes and textures.
- Hours: Tues.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m.; Sun. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-9 p.m.
- Basics: Lovely but simple decor and impressively low prices keep the mood casual, but utterly delicious food and professional, knowledgeable servers make this restaurant more than just a student hang-out.
- Recommended dishes: Sambussa, Pumpkin Soup, Abay House Salad, Gomen Besiga, Doro Wat, Ayib Be Gomen, Kik Alitcha, Butecha, Fosolia, Ginger Sherbet, Banana Wrap and Scoop.
- Prices: Appetizers, $3-$5; Vegetarian Sampler, $11.50 for one person, Combination Sampler, $13.50 for one person; desserts, $3.50-$5.50.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible; nonsmoking; park on street; credit cards accepted; reservations for parties of eight or more; BYOB, corkage, $2.50.
- Noise level: Low to medium-loud.
Pumpkin soup (cup, $3.50; bowl, $5) renewed the palate with every bite thanks to a refreshing dose of lime juice.
Abay's affordable combination platters allow diners to sample a wide variety of dishes. The Combination Sampler, the most flexible, allows diners to choose any four meat and vegetarian entrees ($13.50 for 1, $26 for 2, etc.).
Entrees are served on metal platters lined with injera, a thin, fluffy bread made from tef, a cereal grain unique to Ethiopia. Injera has a slight sourness, and it is uniquely filling. More pieces of injera are served on the side, to be used as utensils for scooping up bits of the stew-like dishes. Abay uses the Yagere brand of injera made by Tadesse Zewdie, who lives in Washington, D.C., and makes injera for many Ethiopian restaurants.
Side portions of various dishes also can be added to any order, increasing one's options even more (Vegetarian, $4.50; Chicken and Beef, $5.50).
A first-time visitor might have trouble deciding among dishes that seem to differ only slightly from each other. This is the rare restaurant where one can look to servers for solid guidance.
The slow-cooked beef in Gomen Besiga -- a stew made from cubed beef cooked with kale, peppers, and onions, and flavored with garlic and ginger -- is both tender and full of flavor. The kale, a troublesome green, has been cooked long enough that sweetness has replaced its raw bitterness, but not so long that it's turned to mush.
In Minchet abish, the beef has been finely minced. Without a trace of gristle or sinew, it has a captivatingly smooth texture and unique sweetness. Though this dish isn't spicy enough to merit much of a warning, about 10 ten seconds after I swallowed, my mouth was pleasantly tingling.
Chicken dishes are first distinguished by their use of breast meat or leg meat. Doro Alitcha certainly benefits from the superior flavor of dark meat drumsticks, marinated with fresh lemon then braised until the meat is tender and almost falling off the bone. You'll want to pick these drumsticks up and eat them with your hands, even if they are covered with a delicious, oniony sauce..
Though Doro Tibs consists of strips of boneless, skinless chicken breasts (bane of food lovers everywhere), the meat stays moist and the awaze contributes a delicious warmth and spicy-sweetness.
The special on both visits was a choice of shrimp or scallops cooked with green peppers and onions, coconut milk and tamarind. The menu noted that this dish was inspired by Kenyan cuisine, a good example of the way that Wallace tries to introduce diners not just to the food and culture of Ethiopia, but also to different regions of Africa. This dish was superb and a nice addition to a menu that lacks seafood options (Ethiopia is land-locked).
Abay is understandably a favorite of vegetarian and especially vegan diners. There are 11 different vegetarian options, 10 of which are vegan. Best yet, they are so delicious that it is far from a punishment to forgo a carnivorous diet for a night.
The best include the Kik Alitcha, yellow split peas cooked with caramelized onions, turmeric and ginger. Much sweeter than green peas, this light stew was the perfect foil to injera's mild sourness. Fosolia, a string bean dish, is a staple of Ethiopian menus. Here, the string beans add their fresh, sweet crunch to carrots and potatoes.
Butecha is a more unusual dish of ground chickpeas with onions and green pepper, served cold. Not everyone at the table enjoyed it, but I was won over after a few bites by its crumbly, almost chewy texture and piquant flavors.
The one disappointment was the Inguday Wat. The mushrooms and brown lentils sounded like an obvious pairing, but the peppery sauce had a slightly bitter taste, as if it had been scorched.
Though Abay is BYOB, a lot of thought has been put into the drinks. Ethiopian coffee ($2.50) is brewed with cloves and is a wonderful addition to or replacement for dessert. Yekemem Shai, tea brewed with cinnamon, cardamom and cloves, is so delicious I can forgive its lack of caffeine ($2.50). Reed's Extra Ginger Brew is another great non-alcoholic choice.
The dessert list could be edited down. The non-Ethiopian cakes seem like a cop-out; fortunately, servers point diners in the wisest directions. The Ginger Sherbet ($3.50) is spicy with the taste of ginger, and cleanses the palate. The seasonal dessert (don't worry, it won't change until the fall) was fantastic as well. Called the Banana Wrap and Scoop ($5.50), it's warm banana spring rolls served with a choice of ice cream and honey or chocolate sauce.
Those looking for the most "authentic" experience might enjoy sitting at a mesob, a low table that holds the platter of food, surrounded by curved, backless stools. However, the ratio of mesob to tables suggests that most diners (including myself) lack perfect posture and prefer the comforts of a chair.
Fortunately, the vast majority of diners choose authenticity when it comes to forgoing silverware and sharing platters, creating the kind of warm, community experience that makes a meal memorable and a restaurant irreplaceable.
Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1198.