Ethiopian food has long been conspicuous in its absence from Pittsburgh dining, even as other exotic cuisines have arrived. And so we salivated in anticipation as Pitt Law graduate Jamie Wallace, Ethiopian accountant Kokit Adgeh and her niece, Sefanit Yilma, opened Abay in East Liberty's burgeoning southern tier, cheek by jowl with the fashionable Red Room and a stone's throw from newly chic East End landmarks like Whole Foods and Kelly's Lounge.
The simple space derives most of its atmosphere from the colors of the Ethiopian landscape: The vestibule is the deep lapis lazuli of the Blue Nile (Abay is the river's Amharic name) and dining-room walls are warm clay brown. Ethiopian art and artifacts inflect the walls without creating a bric-a-brac feel. The space is deep and the seating is plenteous at everything from two-tops to a round table of Arthurian proportions, though the best seats in the house are the low wooden stools clustered around woven-straw tables in the storefront window. These tables developed in concert with Ethiopia's unique food-service technique, in which an entire party's meals are piled communally atop an enormous round of flatbread called injera. Utensils are superfluous, as diners share the food, tearing off bits of the spongy, pancake-y bread to scoop mouthfuls of meat, vegetable and bean stews.
We started off with sambussa -- pastries stuffed with minced beef, green chili peppers and herbs. The wrappers were crisp as new money, the filling velvety and savory with spices understated, but not underdone. Abay's house salad, consisting of fresh lettuce, tomatoes, onions, chili peppers and cooked string beans, was a celebration of fresh vegetables, as red and green as Christmas. The crisp strips of pepper added zing, balanced by the substantial note of the beans. The dressing was ultra-lemony without being harsh.
Wanting to sample as much of the menu as possible, we ordered combination platters for our entrees. This allowed us each to select a mixture of four beef, chicken and vegetable dishes on a single injera.
A little vocabulary goes a long way toward being fluent in ordering Ethiopian. Wat denotes a stew made spicy by berbere, a hot chili pepper paste made with garlic, cloves and cinnamon. Kay wat featured chopped beef simmered in berbere as well as onions and other seasonings. The spiciness of this dish was subtle, with kibae -- seasoned clarified butter, similar to Indian ghee -- offsetting some of the heat of the chili peppers. The rich, almost sweet taste reminded Angelique of beef burgundy.
A more intense beef dish was minchet abish, ground beef cooked with onions, garlic and wine, and accompanied by a dollop of deep red berbere on the side. Since this preparation itself was already slightly piquant, we were able to adjust the heat to taste by mixing in as much or as little of the condiment as we liked. Jason stoked the fire by adding berbere, while Angelique found the meat to be comfortably within her spice tolerance threshold.
Angelique's favorite dish was shiro wat, made of powdered split peas, lentils and chickpeas cooked down to a gruel-like consistency and intensely flavored with berbere and other spices. This dish epitomized one of our favorite things about Abay: Vegetarian items are just as robust and richly flavored as the meat ones.
Alitcha dishes are cooked in an onion and herb sauce without the potent berbere and therefore are less pyrotechnic. We tried doro alitcha -- chicken drumstick -- and kik alitcha, yellow split peas. The chicken's mildness made it ideal for Ethioskeptics, while the split peas had a more engaging preparation in which the lentils seemed to radiate their complex medley of seasonings.
Another legume dish, butecha, consisted of chickpeas ground with olive oil, lemon juice and green chili peppers to an unusual consistency -- dry, with just enough moisture to hold the mixture together in loose clumps. Its flavor was bright and fresh, with the lemon and peppers enlivening the hearty meat of the chickpeas. Doro tibs -- chicken strips stewed with onions and mild chili pepper -- was slightly dry as well, in a less intentional way, despite a pleasingly tangy sauce.
We've waited a long time for Ethiopian food to arrive, and at Abay, we have been deliciously rewarded. The cheerful, down-to-earth atmosphere creates the perfect setting for a dining experience that is inherently as social as it is gastronomical. We can't wait to plunge back into the Blue Nile.
Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3.5 stars