Have you ever been to a place you didn’t like anything about? But at the same time were glad you went, as it made for a great story? Well this is my story of such a place. The night started off rocky when finding “Abyssinia” was a trial in itself. A dimly lit awning and a hardly noticeable open sign, sandwiched between two dark and closed stores. How are customers driving by suppose to know you are open for dinner in the dark? This wasn’t hiding, it was camouflage.
We walked in and were allowed to sit anywhere we wanted in the empty restaurant. Which remained empty for the duration of our hour long stay. The older woman sitting behind the counter was the only one working tonight. Despite us being her only customers she seemed uninterested in our presence.
The walls were a calming tone of orange and the hardwood floors looked to be in great shape. But other than that there was nothing I liked about the decor. Going to washroom to wash your hands was worrisome. Tiles covered in grime, cracks filled with grout, and fixtures coated in dust.
Each table top was a glass pane over a dirty white table cloth. Different pictures of African citizens were cut from magazines were used as decoration under it. This was only a little less appealing to look at than the print out declaring “Abyssinia” the winner of the 2013 award for one of the best Canadian restaurants, as published by Urbanspoon. I became more and more disappointed by this award as the night wore on. The last thing I want to see when I look past my plate is a face staring back at me and an award reminding me that I should enjoy it. Every other table, and ours came with a tooth pick container; a half used, unlit tea light; and a salt dispenser that was partially empty. Looking around each large container of salt was less that 1/5 full, and the salt in it was rock hard. Eventually we would learn that the food would be far from needing it. So in that case, why have something you don’t need on the table? I can’t imagine a reason to keep it if you aren’t going to use it. And the most unappealing element on the table was the frothed up napkin in each drinking glass. This is not the kind of restaurant you would do that sort of table setting technique in. Nor is it ever done with a disposable napkin in a glass meant for water or juice.
My guest and I sat for a while in silence, settled and waiting for a greeting or a menu. Not a word from the only woman running the restaurant could be heard, but there was movement as she went to the back. She did eventually approach our table with menus. When pouring water from a pitcher, some spilled onto the table, she wiped it away with her palm. An ice cube belly flopped into the second glass, causing numerous water slashes, these spills were smaller and therefore allowed to remain on the table. Despite this we still thanked her for the service. To that she replied with a “hmm” in a high pitched hum.
The menu was difficult to navigate without pictures or description as to what sauce was what, and which tasted like what. We played it safe, I avoided the beef tartare-like raw dish that I was actually contemplating on ordering. When asking for recommendations the woman suggested a vegetarian sampling with little piles of different veggies and nuts. I wasn’t keen remembering how it was like at the last African restaurant I visited . We ended up choosing lamb and chicken, feeling confident these should be easy enough dishes.
After taking our order the woman disappeared from the back, not to be seen until our food came. During our wait we heard the beeping of a microwave from the kitchen. Pretty sure it was used to reheat all the food we were about to have. Disappointing, but made sense as it seems she was the only one working both the front and back of house tonight.
The whole night was weird episode after weird episode. The lights went out, but we were too timid to say anything. So sat in the complete dark as the woman worked in the kitchen. We didn’t know why and even contemplated if this was her way of kicking us out. She later came back to dim the lights without an apology
The music was a mix of authentic African vocals and radio ads. The worse was the 4 minute long one on weight loss and help from a life of obesity. This was the worst thing to have on when trying to create an ambience for eating. It went on making you feel guilty to eat, as it offered a blended formula as a solution for a tighter tummy. A solution argued to be better than a gastric bypass.
One other customer came in and left, during the whole the hour plus we were there. He was a tiny man in his 50′s wearing a suit from the 40′s. He looked like the aging father of mob boss. No one was in the front to greet him, even though the door chimed when you pass through it. And you could not avoid hearing the squeak in his shoes every step he took, shuffling to the cash desk. There he stood, silently waiting. Nothing happened and no one came. He eventually squeaked himself back out.
When asking if there was a washroom, most people’s reaction is to say “yes” and to point that person in the right direction of it. This was not the case, a “yes” was given before she walked to the kitchen. Leaving us confused.
Our food came fast, but then again speed in reheating is what a microwave is known for.
“Doro Wot”. A healthy spicy stew made from fresh chicken and sautéed red onions, seasoned with chilli pepper and flavour with garlic, ginger and various Ethiopian herbs. Comes with one hard boiled egg in it. The menu claimed that this was the “Signature of Ethiopia”. Portion alone I was utterly disappointed. I got one tiny chicken drumlet and one egg amongst all the chunky onion stew. This was absolutely not worth the $11.99 I had to pay for. It was far too salty to be eaten without the bread provided. The sponge like bread came as one on the plate and as a plate for us to share on the side. I only took one from the extra plate, so can see them salvaging what they can for the next order. The food was unappealing in taste and in presentation. Eventually the one note flavour became so redundant and I couldn’t get past its overwhelming saltiness, so I gave up eating all together. In no way was I full, and yet I could not bring myself to finish.
“Abyssinia Yebeg tibis”. The menu deemed this as “one of the wonders of Abyssini”. It is lamb marinated in a special blend of spices and herbs. I don’t know why the menu also called this, “A surprise meal”. Maybe surprise as in you can’t believe this could be worth this much. The lamb was better than the chicken, but also not worth the $12.99 we had to pay for it. My guest said he honestly liked the spice, when asked. Though was made to feel nervous about giving the “wrong” answer to the woman.
The woman would check on us regularly, each time her leers and eavesdropping made us feel uncomfortable. You felt the need to have to eat a piece each time she came around. She did make attempts at being friendly, teaching us how to enjoy the food with our hands by dipping. And recommending we scoop the stew out in order to have the bread absorb as much of if as possible. But then she made it much more uncomfortable by coming out from behind her counter to take a seat at a table across the room from ours. She repositioned the chair so that it directly faced us at a 90 degree angle. It was already awkward enough to be the only patrons in the restaurant. We didn’t need the third degree as well. From the corner of our eyes we could see that she was watching us eat and listening to us talk. This was also the case as she waited for us to do the math and settle our bill.
I went in to grab my usual business card souvenir, only to realize they had a 5 place business card rack by their cash register, stocked with other business cards. Odd.
Would I come back? – No.
Would I recommend it? – No.
Between the food and service I didn’t know what was worse. Both didn’t mean to be, but the level of customer service and expectations at a restaurant have risen over the years. And not trying to keep up with it only makes it look like you are giving bad service. The only thing I liked about the night was the woman’s traditional African sarong that she wore.
To end this, I shake my head at the Urbanspoon ranking of 91% that “Abyssinia” has earned and the award that accompanied such a number. (Well, after my vote, 90% now) I question how is it that they are out ranking places that focus so much more on the quality of their food and the level of their service? The only reason I was here tonight was because my guest wanted me to try good African food. So you would think anyplace with 51 voters saying thumbs up would be a safe bet. So I don’t understand what it was that we experienced? If those guests who voted liked the food that’s great. But eating out is just as much the service and the experience as it is the food. All these factors need to be accounted for before casting your vote.