By | March 22, 2006

130 S Highland Ave
East Liberty, 15206
T-Sat 11:30-2:30 and 5-10; Sun 11:30-2:30 and 5-9

When we heard rumors that an Ethiopian restaurant was coming to little ole’ Pittsburgh, my friends and I were overjoyed. While waiting for months for the restaurant to open, we wound up promising everyone we knew that we’d go to Abay with them once it opened. When I say everyone, I mean everyone. People we were good friends with, people we made small talk with, people in totally opposite friend circles, parents, in-laws, coworkers…..everyone. When Abay finally DID open, we had three months of dinner-dates booked on our calander, as it seemed everyone remembered our promise. Three months of any cuisine might make a person sick of it, especially if it isn’t fantastic. But, fortunately for us (and the rest of Pittsburgh), Abay delivers in bringing exotic AND delicious Ethiopian fare at reasonable prices, and we didn’t get bored once!

First of all, you should know that Abay is pronounced ‘a buy’, as in, “the dude abides”. Second of all, you should know how Ethiopian food is served: on a squishy, flat bread called injera with your main course on top. There are no forks, as it is meant to be eaten by hand, with the injera as your tool. A skilled diner, the menu points out, can do this with great ease and even a bit of flair. For now, just be satisfied it reaches your mouth and be ready to use your napkin!

The spongy injera bread that is the base of your dish is delicious! This is, of course, my opinion – and I have met people who don’t like the bread at all. Those people ask for rice, which Abay happily provides. I think they are crazy! The bread is awesome! Injera is traditionally made using flour made of the teff grain, which is, by the way, the smallest grain in the entire world! The first 10 or so times I went to Abay, I marveled at the amazing consistency of the bread. It seemed identical to the injera you would get at a completely authentic Ethiopian restaurant in Washington D.C., where the next closest Ethiopian restaurants live. How did they all make it the exact same way? I started wondering how they probably make the injera, and I had an elaborate cooking appliance all dreamed up in my mind. During every meal at Abay, all I thought about was how I needed that cooking appliance! (confession time: Reed and I have a bit of a kitchen appliance ‘problem’) One day, I asked them how they make it, and the waitress said that it comes from D.C.! The same baker who supplies all of D.C. with the injera also ships it to Pittsburgh! No wonder it seemed the same – mystery solved. Sadly, the actual process of making it is not something I can do as easily as buying a kitchen appliance, which makes me a little sad. I guess I’ll have to go to Abay with every hankering I get!

Now, I feel like I am probably misleading you, because the real star of your dinner is not the injera, but the stuff on the injera. There is a pretty large variety of dishes that you can choose from, and they can be anywhere from very mild/bland to quite spicy. There are also plenty of meaty and vegetarian options. You can bring practically everyone you know here and be sure they’ll find an option they are happy with. My advice for ordering your meal is to get their ‘combination platters’. These are basically your choice of any 4 items on the menu, all on one piece of injera, portioned to the size of your group. I recommend this for optimum variety in your meal. Your server will be more than happy to tell you all about it.

The meat dishes are mainly chicken and beef, plus there is an excellent lamb special right now with apricots and raisins. It reminds me of a Moroccan tagine dish I had in Paris once which rocked my world. Here are some tips on ordering the meat. Some of the meat dishes overlap in terms of their preparation. For instance, the two separate dishes ‘Zil Zil Tibs’ and ‘Doro Tibs’ are the same preparation (that is the “tibs” part) but ‘zil zil’ is beef and ‘doro’ is chicken. To maximize your taste adventure, make sure not to get the same preparation in both meats. If you are squeamish about funky ethnic meats, I am happy to report that you are virtually free from worry at Abay! There are a couple of bone-in dishes, but they are clearly marked on the menu so you can avoid them if you wish. The bone-free dishes are all completely meaty and free from all mystery, so you can relax and get some meat.

If you are more of a veggie lover anyway, there is a huge selection. A number of them are pureed lentils or split peas, which are delicious but can be repetitive if you get too many of them in your combination. I heartily recommend the beet dish, the collard greens and cheese dish, and the kale dish. For those who are truly utterly afraid of spicy foods, get the string beans or the cabbage dish. They are very (very) mild. In general, the vegetarian dishes are mild unless marked spicy. The collard greens and cheese dish is nice because it is mixed with a cheese they make in-house. The cheese is not in huge cubes like paneer, nor is it melted into the dish. It’s more like the curds of cottage cheese mixed in with the kale, and it has a quite nice but subtle flavor. The beet dish is a little sweet because of the sugar in the beets and is a wonderful accompaniment to the spicy meat dish you might have on your platter.

Abay also offers some appetizers, soups, and salads. I have tried different items off these menus and have never been that impressed. There isn’t much going on in the salads, and the soups are a little subtle. I did have a cup of their special pumpkin soup this last time, and it was fairly good. I happened to be drinking a glass of their iced Yekemem Shai (ie – chai tea) which made it even more pumpkin-y by virtue of the tea being spiced with cinnamon and cloves, common ingredients in a pumpkin pie. But, I am a pumpkin-lover and I wasn’t overly elated with the soup. I wasn’t sad to have eaten it though. The appetizer list is mostly made up of Sambussa, which is kind of like the Ethiopian version of a fried spring roll. It comes in beef, veggie, and chicken. We got the chicken one on our most recent visit. The chicken mixture inside the crispy shell was unusual in that it was very finely minced, like how you might find it in chicken ravioli or in the Thai dish ‘larb’. The filling was quite delicious, but honestly the sambussa itself was overwhelmingly greasy. We ate it, oh yes, but we went through many napkins. Reed actually bit the end off and let it drain upside down, leaving a frighteningly large pool of grease at the bottom of the bowl. When I tell people to go to Abay, I usually don’t recommend getting an appetizer, soup, or salad as it seems like they haven’t really worked out the kinks yet. I will mention that I haven’t yet ordered the Ye’Abesha Dabo, little fingers of wheat bread, so I’ll be trying that on my next visit.

And finally, they serve the aforementioned Yekemem Shai, hot or cold, and Ethiopian coffee, both of which are good before, during, and especially after the meal. They also have a dessert menu featuring, among other things, a mild and interesting ginger sorbet and Prantl’s Burnt Almond Torte – I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about the utter spasms of joy one gets from a slice of THAT cake! (take that last statement literally, no sarcasm is intended – that cake is a damn festival in your mouth)

So, for those of you who aren’t afraid of your friend’s germs, or at least those of you who trust them to wash their hands before dinner, get yourself to Abay today. It may not be as authentic or as good as some of the Ethiopian restaurants in D.C., but its hella closer and with no funky meat-wads to spoil your dinner. It is also in a part of town that is in the process of reviving itself, and we can all support that. Abay is exotic and tasty and everyone has a good time when they go. You might even get to sit on a little wooden stool and eat from a straw table, which is apparently the Ethiopian way. How much more exciting can it get? Indeed, this dudette abay-s.

Zil Zil Tibs (Marinated Beef Strips)
Lamb special
Kay Sir Dinich (Beet and Potato Dish)
Ayib Be Gomen (Collard Greens and Cheese)
Extra Injera (if you run out)

Appetizers, Soups, and Salads (unless they are especially appealing to you)

There is a nearby public parking lot located behind the old artist supply store. If you are going down Highland Ave, you will go over a bridge just before the intersection with Centre Ave. As soon as you go over the bridge but before the stoplight, turn right and there is a parking lot right there. You can also try your luck with street parking, which is mostly available, except on weekend nights.

If you have a group of, say, 8, they have a big round wooden table in the back that is really fun to eat at. It isn’t common in today’s restaurant scene to have a big group at a round table like that, and it gives your dining experience a bit of a regal feel. You will want to call ahead and make reservations though, which they take for parties of 8 or more. Also, don’t forget to read the blurbs on the menu about how to eat and drink responsibly – they are a hoot!

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