Review: Abyssinia

Comfort food from Ethiopia and Eritrea
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  May 31, 2011

As Providence has become a foodie mecca over the years, ethnic opportunities have expanded beyond Italian and Portuguese. But African foods? Not so much.

Abyssinia, which opened its doors less than four months ago, is a welcome addition, presenting the common fare of Ethiopia and Eritrea. The kitchen is in the authoritative command of Yodit Gebrebiwot and her husband Amanuel, both from Eritrea, where they fled the civil war. New-found friends in Providence encouraged them to open a restaurant.

Abyssinia | 401.454.1412 | 333 Wickenden St, Providence | Sun-Thurs, 11 am-10 pm; Fri-Sat, 11 am-11 pm | Major Credit Cards | BYOB | Sidewalk-Level Accessible

The authenticity of their efforts is certified to African cuisine naifs like myself not by their kitchen-made ayib, which may very well be the perfect embodiment of the traditional Ethiopian cottage cheese, but rather by their coffee. Coffee I can share an opinion about. Green beans, the Ethiopian variety, of course, are pan-roasted there to just the right visual and aromatic point. Your carafe is prepared to order and served in a French press, to maximize flavor, which is mild and bright, with medium acidity.

But that's to cap off your meal (no desserts at this point). For a sip before and during your dining, it's BYOB. Good decision. Eating here is cheap even if you splurge, which amortizes a more expensive vin rouge than you might otherwise spring for.

Abyssinia is where a Cambodian place, the Angkor Restaurant, used to be before it relocated farther up Wickenden Street. There are only five tables downstairs, but don't hesitate to come on a weekend — there are plenty of banquettes upstairs, so they can seat about 50. There's the same menu for lunch and dinner, with the prices and/or quantities bumped up in the evening (both prices are below).

You can start out with a Romaine lettuce salad or the ye'dinich salata (either one $4.95 and $5.95), the latter composed of beets and diced potatoes. Or you can have a dish of ayib bemitmita ($2.50/$2.95), that cottage cheese mixed with spices. It's much drier than the supermarket variety, more like crumbly farmer cheese.

We instead began with sambussa, small triangular fried pies so common in many traditions, with only the fillings changing. There are vegetarian ($4.95/$5.95) and beef ($5.95/$6.95) versions; both were mildly spiced and herbed, and the vegetable one is packed with lentils.

Meals in the region are normally eaten with the fingers, picking up portions with pieces of flatbread. Abyssinia makes an accommodation to our fastidious eating habits and at the same time to our aesthetics. The food is served on a round of injera, a soft and moist sourdough flatbread, which fills a 12-inch-diameter platter — that's to make a pretty presentation. Back home the bread is rolled up on the side, and they break off pieces as they eat. Here too you get a side of more injera, in case you don't want to break pieces off the round that is holding the food because it is soggy from sauces. (Knife and fork are provided, though, to keep things neat.)

The flatbread is made from both teff and wheat flour, though celiacs may request all-teff injera. Vegetarian dishes are vegan, which makes Abyssinia a welcome addition for those so restricted.

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