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cuisine. Abay Ethiopian Sliberty

Abay Ethiopian Cuisine
130 S.Highland Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA, 15206

It has been a struggle, but Pittsburgh finally has an Ethiopian restaurant. Abay Ethiopian Cuisine opened its doors on June 8 and has grown in leaps and bounds since then. The restaurant, whose name means ?Blue Nile? in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia, is the creation of former lawyer James W. Wallace. James claims that he had been thinking of the idea for a while and a trip to Africa prompted him to finally open the restaurant.

Abay has a muted Ethiopian-inspired decor. The walls are sand colored and dotted with various small objets d?art to give the restaurant a calm, casual dining atmosphere. If possible, try to eat at the front table by the window, which clearly has the best seats in the house. At these seats, diners sit on small backless African stools around a low straw table. Abay?s location, while it may seem out of the way for most CMU students, is actually ideal. It is positioned at the border between East Liberty and Shadyside (the 500 bus takes you there). Most importantly, Abay is right around the corner from the perpetually hip music and performance venue, the Shadow Lounge. It is not uncommon to see people moving back and forth between one and the other.

My group of five got lucky: On the night we chose to go to Abay the restaurant wasn?t packed to its maximum capacity. When seated, our waitress, a friendly CMU drama student, gave us a quick summary of eating Ethiopian style. For the uninitiated, Ethiopian food can only be eaten communally, and with the hands. Abay does supply silverware and individual plates on request, but their use is highly discouraged. As my relatives used to put it: ?eating food with a fork is like making love through a sheet? ? you just don?t enjoy it as much. The food is served on a giant platter on a bed of the famous Ethiopian bread, injera. Injera is thin bread with the thickness of a crepe and made of fermented wheat. Its spongy texture is perfect for soaking up sauce and scooping up morsels of food, making it a replacement for utensils. The injera at Abay may not be made in house but it certainly is fresh. Owner Wallace admitted that due to the lack of Ethiopian food stores in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area, he gets his bread shipped in from Washington, D.C., on Greyhound daily.

Abay is a BYOB establishment but if there is anything besides alcohol that can lower people?s inhibitions while dining, it is communal eating. Everyone is free to sample everything and to be a little messy. Abay strongly encourages sampling and sharing by offering reasonably priced combination platters. Reflecting on the half-vegetarian menu, the combination platters can be composed of meat dishes, vegetable dishes, and, of course, a combination. You are allowed to pick four entrees and they come in sizes from one person to four people. Aside from allowing you to check out many different dishes, the combo platters are also very affordable at less than $40 for a four-person platter.

My group was very hungry, and started out with the sambussa appetizer. Sambussa is the Ethiopian equivalent of the samosa or the spring roll: a small puff pastry triangle with spiced filling. The vegetarian sambussa was filled with spiced lentils and onions. The quality seems to fluctuate, as on an earlier trip to Abay the sambussa was crisp and moist whereas this time the outer shell was soft and the inner filling was extremely dry, requiring sips of water between bites.

For an entree I shared a combination platter, choosing the veggie dishes of misr wat, shiro wat, kik alitcha, and ye?abesha gomen. Wat is an Ethiopian spice blend including ground cloves, cardamom, and cinnamon and used on beef, chicken (such as the definitive chicken dish, doro wat), and vegetables. The misr and shiro wat were red lentils and yellow lentils, respectively, cooked in a wat sauce. All of the dishes that used lentils or wat were outstanding. Both lentil dishes were spicy without being the least bit too hot and richly flavored to saturate them with uniquely Ethiopian flavor combinations of berbere spices and onion. The kik atlicha, yellow lentils simmered in a lighter combination of spices, was a milder dish but equally tasty. The pure vegetable dishes on the menu such as the fosoila, spiced green beans and potatoes, and the ye?abesha gomen (the stewed kale that we ordered) seemed bland and unremarkable compared to the more flavorful hearty lentil dishes. Not surprisingly, it was the last item on the combo platter to be eaten.

Abay?s dessert specials were sorbet, ice cream, and baklava. My group went for all three, choosing the coconut sorbet and the coconut fudge ice cream. Abay also features spiced coffee and spiced tea (yekemen shai). Opinions on the desserts varied as some of my companions really loved them and others found them good but not noteworthy.

As described by the owner, customers at Abay fall into three categories: There are the natives, people who know and love Ethiopian food from living in other cities; there are the customers who have heard about Ethiopian food but never tried it; and there are those who don?t know where Ethiopia is, but are hungry for something new. Whichever category you identify with, your needs are sure to be met by Abay?s hearty communal fare. Abay takes something like Ethiopian food, which can be intimidating to first-time eaters, and serves in an uncomplicated but still delicious way. Roll up your sleeves and enjoy.