By James Knight
Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do.
Whether from south of the border, East Africa or the Lower East Side, new arrivals have always brought welcome new culinary opportunities. The North Bay's significant Eritrean community is going on 20 years here, but aside from the recently closed Santa Trata, good eats from the Horn of Africa have been elusive. So it was particularly exciting that this new restaurant has opened in downtown Santa Rosa between a taqueria and a pizza joint.
The cuisine is called Ethiopian/Eritrean because the nations, politically divided after years of war, share a great deal of culture. Abyssinia's airy, tiled floor space is somewhat utilitarian but for colorful baskets and decorative lighting, so it's not a dimly lit den of low archways and palm trees or whatever one may wish for, but just fine for casual dining. Service was smoothly on time for everything from drinks to check, and the two young guys running the shop seemed really committed to it and happy to explain their menu.
The but'echa ($5) sounded like the best bet from a limited appetizer list, which otherwise offered chilled lentils and flax-seed powder. This greenish chickpea dip, served with a tortilla-like flatbread, had an uninspiring stiff porridge consistency. Fortunately, the entrées are deceptively sized, ensuring that appetizers are not a must, and I thoroughly enjoyed a pre-meal Ethiopian Harar ($5.25), an extra smooth style beer like an English cream ale; my friend preferred the more pilsner-like Eritrean Asmara.
There is a big place at the table for vegetarians here, with seven entrée choices. Since my dining comrade is in that fold, we skipped the steak tartare and lamb cube dishes, which the chef explained to us are marinated in spices and best served raw or lightly sautéed. Not ready for beef sushi, I opted instead for miser we't ($10.95), a lentil purée with red pepper and Ethiopian spices.
My friend had the garbanzo-based shiro ($10.95), and both orders were served together with small salads on a large plate of injera , a spongy, sour flatbread that is like a thick crêpe. Utensils are optional; one digs in by tearing apart the injera and using it to scoop up the currylike mounds. What appear to be modest portions ladled from small bowls turn out, 20 minutes later, to be quite filling. I didn't guess I'd take home leftovers.
I hadn't really noticed the tea urns labeled "spiced" and "oregano" until the end of the meal, but for our curiosity we were treated to samples. The spiced tea ($2) is similar to Indian chai, with a cinnamon aroma and semisweet taste, while the palate-cleansing oregano tea ($2), redolent of fresh-picked herbs, would add an entirely different, fragrant dimension to a meal. I look forward to it next time—and there will be a next time, if not for the steak tartare, then for the nicely priced weekend breakfast ($4.50).
Abyssinia Restaurant, 913 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. Open for lunch and dinner daily; breakfast, Saturday–Sunday only. 707.568.6455.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.