Saunter by the corner of 95 Street and 108 Avenue, and you’ll notice that Rendez Vous – a longstanding favorite for Edmonton’s Ethiopian food enthusiasts – is no more. In its stead is Abyssinia, a subtle relaunch that stays true to its predecessor’s founding vision of authentic East African dishes served in a welcoming environment.
For all of Abyssinia’s subtle enhancements, much remains the same. The owners seemingly still can’t find a use for the open field and bare balcony out front. The signage is only partially updated. And the menu is largely untouched, too, with a similar variety of lamb, chicken, beef, and vegetarian dishes on order, at roughly the same price point.
I recently visited with two dining companions, during a quiet lull in an otherwise busy Saturday night. The first of us to arrive lets us know that he’s disappointed with the beer selection – no African beers are available, only domestic drafts and a handful of European bottles.
No matter. We take our time with the menu, debating our options for the best blend of savory, spicy, and satisfying. Thankfully, our server is quick to pick up on our uncertainty and gladly offers her perspective on how to round out our dishes.
We ended up with three selections, ordering a mix of lamb, beef, and vegetarian dishes. They arrived after a healthy wait – long enough for our appetites to get revved up without becoming famished.
All the dishes are presented together in a single, massive platter, covered with leaves of fresh injera (bread). Piles of lentils, spinach, cauliflower and carrots, and green salad ring the outside. Spicy dipping sauces and a pot of tangy white cheese accompany it. In the center of the plate are our lamb and beef dishes.
We plow through the bowl of Kitfo ($15) – minced beef flavoured with niter kibbeh (clarified butter seasoned with turmeric, cumin, and clove) and mitmita (a spice blend of cardamom, hot pepper, clove, and other herbs) first. It’s fragrant, warm and rich. Paired with a bit of the cooling lab-cheese (Ethiopian curd cheese), a few bites are enough to awaken taste buds in every corner of your mouth.
Both of my meat-loving dinner companions comment, with equal parts surprise and delight, on how much they enjoy the vegetarian platter. Though the mini-dishes all rely on similar herbs and spices as source flavors, they vary the intensity of heat and creaminess of texture perfectly, all while allowing core flavors to clearly poke through. The spinach has a deep, earthy taste; the lentils are smooth and starchy; and the cauliflower and carrots mildly sweet.
The Chacha Tibs ($15) – lamb spiced with rosemary, jalapeno, white wine, and garlic – was perhaps our least favorite of the three, outshone by the deeper flavours and thoughtful layers of spiciness in the beef and vegetarian dishes.
But the star of the meal is behind the scenes: the extra effort Abyssinia invests to hand-make their injera bread, which is a perfect blend of sour, spongy, and sweet, and scene-stealing lab-style cheese pays off on the palate. Our server was right to boast of the in-house expertise at work.
We nosh our way through all of the food – past the edge of being full yet still loathe to leave the table. With no room for dessert, we decided on spiced tea to cap off the meal. It’s quick to arrive and simple in presentation: Red Rose tea bags poured over a simmered blend of aromatic and woody spices, tempered with sugar. It was a sweet note to end hours of gastronomic delight.