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Abyssinia provides hands-on dining experience

The Wickenden Street restaurant offers Eritrean and Ethiopian vegetarian-friendly food

Take a moment to recall finger-painting in preschool. The paint streaks on T-shirts, foreheads and friends — remember the chaos, the joy of working with bare hands. Fast forward to now, when these simpler times seem all but gone.

Luckily, a portal to this past exists. It is called finger-eating, and there is nothing childish about it. The paints are tonight’s dinner — a pandemonium of purple beets, collard greens and sunset-colored cabbage — and the canvas injera, the sour, fermented flatbread distinctive to Ethiopia. There are no forks or knives at Abyssinia, a two-floor escape to the cuisine of Ethiopia and Eritrea at 333 Wickenden St.

Opened by a husband and wife who fled an Eritrean civil war, the restaurant offers cuisine that is at once surprising, exotic and fun to eat.

With sultry lighting and cinnabar booths, the atmosphere screams date night. But be warned — patrons will be licking sauce off their fingers for a considerable amount of the evening, so dinner dates should be chosen wisely — preferably those who would not mind or may even enjoy seeing their companions do that, repeatedly, until the check arrives.

No matter what the dish, the injera will unify the meal, its muted sour tones deftly harmonizing with the spices of the meats, vegetables and legumes that take center stage. Abyssinia’s food arrives on a platter-sized disk of the bread, which soaks up sauce more effectively than a ShamWow. To refresh diners’ palate, all dishes come with rolls of fresh injera.

The secret to ordering here is the seductive combination plate: two meat entrees with a sampling of all the vegetable dishes, a wonderful compromise for two people that comes in at just under $30.

The key wot, tender beef cubes simmered in smoky Ethiopian berbere sauce, is extraordinary. Its spice is aromatic, blossoming without dominating, thanks to a dollop of ayib, Ethiopia’s own cottage cheese-ricotta hybrid. Creamy and rich, the ayib tempers the heat of the berbere in a gorgeous symbiosis.

While not groundbreaking in flavor or preparation, the ye’beg tibs, lamb cubes sauteed in olive oil and a smattering of peppers, are tender and flavorful, with meat juices seeping out with each chew.

The vegetarian-friendly menu is short but successful — each dish reads as so exotic that an endless variety would overwhelm. These dishes shine in their diversity and texture, the crispness of the cabbage and collard greens on one end of the spectrum and syrupy ground lentils on the other. All are sprinkled with toasted grains of paradise, adding a subtle but pleasing crunch.

Equally stunning are the pureed legumes — split peas, onions and tomatoes blended to produce the ater kik — delicately spiced with turmeric and colored with the spice’s goldenrod pigment.

With nine different menu items colliding on one plate, it can be difficult for diners to remember what they ordered or what exactly they are even eating. The dusky lighting only exacerbates this pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey phenomenon, and the more diners eat, the more the dishes seep into one another.

But everything tastes so fine that there is nothing wrong with rediscovering tastes old and new while attacking the platter.

The service is polite and prompt, if mumbly at times.

Open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Abyssinia is guaranteed to transport patrons. Whether the destination be Ethiopia, childhood art class or a combination of the two, diners will have a delightfully hands-on epicurean experience.


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