Ethiopian, With a Modern Touch
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Feb. 1, 2008
At first glance: Plain but immaculate, this narrow storefront just across from the AFI Silver and Roundhouse theaters is painted in deep reddish-brown, spicy shades that echo the food. A TV showing Ethiopian music videos is mounted over the bar, which has a handful of stools.
On the menu: Like many Ethiopian restaurants, Abol does not offer appetizers. Unlike at most other restaurants, the kitchen adjusts combination platters to offer optimal choices: When one diner ordered yebeg wot, a ginger- and cardamom-scented lamb, and her companion ordered a combo with the same dish, the chef substituted lollipop-like braised lamb riblets with injera, the spongy, flat pieces of bread also used to pinch up bites of food.
At your service: The third Ethiopian restaurant in downtown Silver Spring, Abol -- which means "authentic" or "original" -- has the most contemporary style. The tables are set with plates, and dishes are served in handsome, modern vessels, not already ladled onto an injera-topped tray as usual. There are spoons for ladling, but no dining utensils; you use injera to eat. (If you cover your plate with injera before serving yourself, it's easier to pick up the food neatly. Also, you can either eat the gravy-soaked base or, if you find it too oily, leave it as a blotter.) The combo platters are served in multi-pocketed glass platters and the steak-tartarelike kitfo in a large bowl lined with banana leaves. Though kitfo traditionally is oiled with the clarified butter called niter kibbeh, here you are asked not only how much (if at all) you want the kitfo cooked but also how spicy and oily you would like it.
At the table: Abol offers several vegetable dishes not generally available at area Ethiopian restaurants: a cold lentil dish called azifah, tossed with diced green peppers, cumin and lime juice; baked beets and potatoes; and shenbra asa wot, baked fritterlike chickpea "cookies" simmered in Abol's rich berbere sauce, a fragrant blend of ground roasted chili peppers, allspice, cinnamon and cloves.
Yefasolia wot -- string beans cooked with carrots -- and gomen wot -- collard greens -- are unusually fresh. One night's veggie sampler was garnished with a witty twist on the usual salad: a plump jalapeno stuffed with diced tomato and onion. The tibs, sauteed dishes of lamb or beef with onions and peppers served on sizzling griddles, come with salad. There are also unusual veggie-protein combinations: split peas topped with sauteed beef, and the vegetable sampler with a whole fried tilapia ($6 extra).
In addition to the traditional doro wot -- densely sauced chicken stew with drumstick and hard-boiled egg -- Abol offers a ground-beef version, something like an Ethiopian chili, also with an egg. (Hint: Break up the egg for easier pinching.) The kitfo comes with two versions of yogurtlike cheese, one plain and the other with the mitmita (chili-spice powder) already beaten in, and with a surprising pestolike puree of collards.
Unless you're starving, a combination for one can be enough for two. But a combo for two costs only $7 more, and leftovers come with more injera, so it can be a two-meal bargain.
What to avoid: Consider the volume of the TV before sitting too close. Vegans should check whether dishes are cooked in niter kibbeh or vegetable oil.
Wet your whistle: Abol has a full bar and a handful of basic wines and beers; though Ethiopian labels are on the menu, they are not always available.