It’s hard to get an exact count of the number of Ethiopians living in Middle Tennessee, but in recent weeks so many of them called the Scene to recommend Abay Ethiopian Restaurant that we quickly made our way to Nolensville Road to see what all the fuss was about.
Nestled in the Woodland shopping center on the seldom-seen south side of the strip mall, Abay is the newest foray into Ethiopian cuisine by Gezahegn Woldetsadik and his wife Tsige Teklemicheal, who emigrated from the East African country 15 years ago. Having sold their first restaurant, Awash (976 Murfreesboro Pike), last year, the couple now own and operate Abay, with Teklemicheal in the kitchen and Woldetsadik, daughter Hannah and son Melake in the front of the house.
Named for an Ethiopian river that feeds into the Nile, the one-room restaurant bears little to distinguish it as distinctly Ethiopian, apart from travel posters on the walls, which could easily be swapped out for another country’s marketing materials to recast the restaurant in an entirely different culture. And the generic furniture, white table cloths and mauve walls are disappointingly banal for anyone hoping for a more authentic experience amid ethnic textiles and tchotchkes. That is, until you look a little closer to find two distinct hints of the restaurant’s East African heritage. To the left of the door sit two low, hourglass-shaped tables, each surrounded by low stools. For parties who choose these seating arrangements, the round tabletops serve as communal platters. Another hint of Ethiopian culture is a mysterious altar of demitasse cups and artificial flowers near the cash register, alluding to the ritual of drinking coffee in a country whose primary export is the coffee bean.
But despite its anemic interior design, Abay is a great place to take a mixed group of carnivores and vegetarians, since Ethiopian cuisine marginalizes neither group. Home to Muslims and Christians, some of whom fast for as many as 200 days of the year, Ethiopia boasts a cuisine rich in both meat and vegetarian dishes, particularly deeply flavored stews of lentils, greens and beans. The primary flavors across Abay’s menu come from berbere and mitmita, pungent blends of garlic, onion and various spices, which lend a smoky, peppery glow to many of the meats and lentils.
Ordering at Abay can be a challenge, since the translations accompanying the foreign names are often no more detailed than “spiced beef stew,” “lamb meat stew” or “chicken stew.” The best approach is to dive right in with a combination platter—meat or vegetarian, both with either four or seven items, depending on your appetite and the size of your posse.
Keep in mind that endless piles of filling injera bread will accompany whatever you order. (No, those spongy folds aren’t warm towels for washing your hands before digging in; they’re the sour, crepe-like flatbread you’ll use to scoop up all your food—instead of a fork.) The seven-item combo could easily serve two people.
In three visits, we came to deduce that the combo varies on any given day, despite what the menu says. For example, we fell in love with a certain spicy dish of minced beef in berbere sauce, but we could never actually find it on the menu. So, just close your eyes and hope that you get a bowl of minchet abish, best described as Ethiopian sloppy joe filling. The thick red stew, with its tang and smoky heat, will make you forever renounce the Manwich.
The rich color and complex heat of the berbere and mitmita appear throughout the small bowls of various items in the combo. Berbere infuses the tender chicken drumstick and hard-boiled egg of the doro we’t (the dish recalls the shank and eggshell that appear in the Passover seder) as well as the qwant’a firfir, a beef stew tempered by the addition of shredded injera, which both dries up the texture and quells the heat.
The meat combo also includes kitfo, a mixture of minced beef with chili pepper, served with homemade cottage cheese for a cooling effect. Here is another great place to take a leap of faith: order the kitfo raw, as the Ethiopians do. Most non-Ethiopians—or “the white people,” as Woldetsadik says—don’t order the chopped, uncooked ox butt, opting instead for the cooked version, listed on the menu as leb leb. But the bowl of slightly warmed red meat is worth a try, with its smooth texture and deep color not far from tuna sushi.
In addition to the combo, we tried lamb tibs and beef awaze tibs. In both cases the sauteed meat, cooked in berbere with tomatoes, onions and jalapeños, was flavorful but tough—the minchet abish and doro we’t were our favorite meat dishes.
The multicolored vegetarian combo, reflecting the red, green and yellow of the Ethiopian flag, offers a similarly flavorful and hearty array of berbere-tinged items, including red lentils that share the smoky heat of the minchet abish. Collard greens and jewel-yellow cabbage with carrots and potatoes break up the texture of the beans, chick peas and lentils. Our favorite vegetarian item was the yellow lentils, a soft porridge of bright yellow pearls heavily accented with garlic.
For good measure, the vegetarian combo can be up-sized to include a whole fried tilapia, which emerges steaming hot with a crispy skin and sweet, juicy white meat. A combo with fish could easily serve three people for $13.95.
Out of the deep fryer also come crispy sambusas, pockets of flaky fried dough filled with spicy minced beef with a bright green confetti of finely chopped jalapeño peppers. They make great appetizers, and are available in a vegetarian version.
The ambience at Abay is by no means festive. The posters boasting “Thirteen months of sunshine” give it the feeling of a travel agent’s office during lunch hour or an airport waiting room in the off-season. But if you arrive when Hannah is working the room, her warm personality and eagerness to explain the menu—not to mention the vibrant flavors of the food itself—more than compensate.
Abay is open Monday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
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