Less salt, more jazz

Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant

1346 Fulton Ave.

(916) 481-1580

At Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant, it is equally as easy to order a completely vegan meal and one that is composed almost entirely of raw beef. As with all Ethiopian cuisine, the tradition of vegan dishes arose from the custom of abstaining from consuming animal products during the fasting days observed by the Orthodox Christian religion, which has many Ethiopian adherents.

In contrast, a fondness for uncooked beef, especially by males, is also a part of Ethiopian food culture. At makeshift cafes in Ethiopia, raw muscle is sliced from the side of a freshly killed cow and butchered and eaten on the spot, dipped in chili sauce and lemon. Legend has it that this practice traces its roots to wartime, when soldiers couldn’t risk giving their position away with the smell of grilling meats.

If you’re interested in raw or rare beef but not quite ready to attack the bloody chunks in the gored gored dish—which Abyssinia does offer—then the kitfo, a finely ground-beef dish, is a good place to start. The kitfo can be served extremely rare (or completely raw) if requested, and is seasoned with a mix of spices called mitmita, which includes chilies and a light dusting of cardamom and cloves. The “special” kitfo comes with a side of fresh cheese made from buttermilk that is simmered until curds form.

Another meat dish available here is the standard doro wat, chicken legs simmered in chili sauce and clarified butter. Clarified butter, or niter kibbeh, is the staple cooking fat of Ethiopian dishes and is present in many dishes, both veggie and meat based. The food can be surprisingly rich for that reason, which is true of the ye-doro alicha, chicken legs smothered in sweet onions and garlic sautéed in what the menu bills as “healthy spicy butter” and seasoned with turmeric. Most chicken dishes are served with a hard-boiled egg.

I’ve yet to encounter truly tender lamb in an Ethiopian restaurant, and Abyssinia is no exception. At this point, I’ve just accepted it as a given, so if that’s not a turnoff to you, any of the lamb dishes are recommended—just anticipate a strong ovine flavor and a springy, tough bite.

Many of Abyssinia’s vegetable dishes are too salty or have the stale taste of spices kept too long in the bag. The still-firm chopped collard greens suffer from the former problem big-time, and the ye-misir wot, or lentil stew, suffers from the latter. A salad of beets and potatoes is novel but is un-dressed and plain; a mixture of cabbage, potato and carrot is simply those three ingredients boiled. A dish of split peas seasoned with a berbere-spice mixture of chili, ginger and garlic, or shiro wat, has some heat; and the al dente peas have a pleasing texture.

If you can save room, the tangy, spongy injera bread underneath the dishes gets soaked with mingled juices and spices and is always the best part. Save room for a bottle of beer or two as well: Hakim Stout is roasty, malty and honeyed.

The family that owns Abyssinia used to run Addis Ababa Ethiopian Restaurant in the same area, and the owners seem dispirited but still valiantly cheerful. The restaurant is nearly empty on both dinnertime visits, although it may be busier during the inexpensive lunch buffet. The restaurant lacks a cozy ambience due to its cavernous space, but there are pictures of Ethiopian scenes on the walls and a constant soundtrack of cool Ethiopian jazz.

Abyssinia’s meat dishes are definitely the equal of any Ethiopian in the region, notably the special kitfo and the ye-doro alicha, but it needs to jazz up the vegetable dishes and put down the salt shaker to honor the vegetarian aspect of Ethiopian cuisine.