Sunday, October 17, 2010

Costa del Sol

What we today know as Spain arose out of a patchwork of small Christian kingdoms that served as a bulwark between the rest of Europe and the once mighty Caliphate of Cordoba which dominated much of North Africa and much of the Iberian Penninsular until about AD 1000. In the northeast was Navarre, centered around Pamplona in the Basque region. In the southeast, along the Pyrenees, was Aragon, founded by Charlemagne as a barrier between his empire and the Caliphate. In the center, there was Castile (literally, the land of castles), a wild frontier where Cross and Crescent frequently came to blows. In the northwest was Leon, to which was usually appended Galacia, which is the part of Spain that extends over the northern border of Portugal.

Galacia is home to the most sacred Christian shrine on the Iberian Penninsular (and one of the most sacred in the world), the shrine of Santiago (St. James) de Compostela. It is from Galacia that Pepe Feijoo and his family came in 1966. After 20 years of hard work, he was able to open Costa del Sol (which, ironically, is the name of the region in the far south of Spain, below Granada) on Wethersfield Avenue on the Hartford/Wethersfield line and they have been serving delicious, authentic, Spanish food ever since.

Continuing our recent attempt to diversify our cuisine, my wife and I decided to go to CDS last Saturday. It was her first trip and when it was over I could not only tell that she had really enjoyed it, but also that she might have been a bit annoyed that I waited nearly 7 years to bring her there.

Our meal started with complimentary bread and olive oil so fresh it tasted like it had just been pressed. My wife and I (especially my wife) have had a lot of olive oil in our lives and it isn't an exaggeration to say that CDS's olive oil might have been the best (CDS's website points out, actually boasts, that "Spain produces 44% of the world's olives").

We started with two appetizers, the Tabla Iberica (Serrano ham, chorizo, salchichón, Manchego cheese and San Simon cheese) $10 & the Pulpo (Galician style octopus with Spanish paprika, sea salt and extra virgin olive oil) $11. The meats and cheeses that comprised the Tabla Iberica were outstanding, particulatly the salchichon (which is sort of like salami). The octupus was well-prepared (i.e. not overcooked), but it was not outstanding, which was a small disappointment (at least for me), though the Tabla Iberica more than carried the day.

For dinner we elected to have paella. Paella comes from the Valencia region of southeast Spain (Valencia was the base of operations for the great Spanish warlord, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, better known to us as El Cid) and is made from a base of rice, saffron, and olive oil into which herbs, spices, meats, seafood, shellfish and all sorts of other delicious things are mixed. For those that don't know, one of the hallmarks of paella is a thin crust of rice (which is infused with the other flavors in the dish) that forms along the bottom of the pan (:> x 25).

CDS has four different versions of paella and we opted for the Paella de la Casa (clams, mussels, shrimp, chicken and chorizo) for $21 each. It was absolutely outstanding. The flavors were well-balanced, the ingredients fresh, and the dish piping hot. Granted, it doesn't sound complicated, and compared to many fine dining meals it isn't, but paella, especially CDS's paella, is proof of Gordon Ramsey's adage "simple food cooked well."

One thing to note about CDS's paella, however, is that it comes in at least a double serving, which means solo diners will have to have choose something else. Fortunately, CDS has a full menu, so the solo diner (or those who want to try something else) can choose from a number of excellent dishes ranging from the ubiquitous codfish to pork osso buco to mariscada (clams, muscles, shrimp, fish, and squid in your choice of either a tomato based broth or a seafood garlic parsley broth).

For desert we had the fruit and cheese plate ($7) which was the perfect way to end the meal as the cheeses were amazing.

CDS has a very nice wine list built (not surprisingly) around a variety of Spanish reds and whites, though there are quite a few New World offerings (most from Argentina and Chile). Not surprisingly, CDS also serves absolutely amazing sangria (if you don't know what sangria is, I am not going to explain it. Try some, I promise, you won't be disappointed).

CDS also has a full range of cordials, including (not surprisingly) a number of ports of varying prices and quality.

CDS may be a family-operated ethnic restaurant, but it is no way tacky, hokey, or anything other than a first class fine dining establishment. The interior is heavily Mediterranean in terms of decor, colors, lighting, etc. but it is extremely tastefully appointed.

The service is outstanding. The staff is knowledgeable, hardworking, and attentive, but they do not hover or annoy.

Simply put, Costa del Sol is a great restaurant.

Here's the link to its website -

Monday, October 4, 2010

Abyssinian Restaurant

Most people know very little about Ethiopia, let alone Ethiopian cuisine. In fact, most of what I do know about Ethiopia is only because I know a good amount about the history of my own people, the Portuguese.

In the 1400's the Portuguese worked very hard to find a route to India by sailing south along the African coast in the hope of finding the southern tip of the continent. There were two reasons for this exploration. The first was that a route to India that did not go through the Mediterranean would allow my ancestors to circumvent the monopoly my wife's Italian ancestors had on the spice trade with the east. The second was that the Portuguese, like all Europeans, were dimly aware of an ancient Christian kingdom called Abyssinia (Christianity arrived in what is now Ethiopia in the 4th century AD and Ethiopia has a monarchy that can trace its roots to the 2nd century, BC). This kingdom was supposedly ruled by a powerful and pious monarch named Prestor John and the Portuguese hoped to forge an alliance with him.

The Portuguese eventually made it around the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and to Ethiopia in 1508. There was, however, no saintly and mighty king named Prestor John, and although the Portuguese did form an alliance with Ethiopia it was quite the opposite of what the Portuguese had hoped for. Rather than receiving aid in their own wars with the Islamic people of what is now Morocco, the Portuguese soon had to come to the aid of the Ethiopians, who were invaded by neighboring Islamic Adal (which occupied part of what is now Somalia).

I wish I could tell you my knowledge of some of Ethiopia's history is what inspired me to try the Abyssinian, but it's not. The Abyssinian Restaurant is right next door to Monte Alban (see below) and is a good example of the three principles of real estate investment - location, location, and location.

I don't know how many times my wife and I walked by the Abyssinian on our way into Monte Alban, but my wife eventually got curious about Ethiopian cuisine, did a little research, and suggested that we go there for dinner (I suspect that's how the Abyssinian gets a lot of its customers, because they don't have a website, they don't advertise, and I don't know that there are enough Ethiopians living in the area to support the Abyssinian without any non-Ethiopian customers). We have been many times since.

If you follow this blog you know I've been eating a lot of Italian food lately so this past Saturday my wife and I decided to go the Abyssinian for some variety and because we hadn't been there for several months.

Before I start talking about the food I need to make full disclosure about an extremely important aspect of the Abyssinian: the service is bad. Really, really, really bad. They don't have enough people working (I have never seen more than 1 person in the dining room and I don't know that there is more than one in the kitchen) and the person who runs the dining room really isn't a restaurant person, even though is pretty hardworking and a nice guy. It takes a LONG time to get seated and to have your order taken and the food isn't particularly quick in coming out of the kitchen. My wife and I thus make it a rule to get there before 6 PM and if at all possible before 5:30 PM (another possibility is to order take out).

You are now probably asking yourself why you should go a restaurant where there the service is so slow that you need to have dinner at the same time as your grandparents to get in and out in a reasonable amount of time. I know you are, because I was asking myself the same question on Saturday night (we got there at about 6:15 PM) while were waiting, and waiting, and waiting to have our order taken (I don't think we ordered until about 6:45 PM. Mercifully, the food came out of the kitchen at a reasonable pace, but not quick enough to make up for the very slow start).

The answer, of course, is because however bad the service is (and it is bad) the food is that good, times about 5.

Ethiopian cuisine is very different than Western cuisine. First and foremost, unless you are eating a salad, you don't use utensils. To the extent the food is not something that can easily be picked up, you use a soft, spongy bread to pick it up. This bread comes in large circles, not unlike a tortilla, but it is thick and porous, which allows it to soak up the flavors of whatever it is you are picking up (a definite advantage). Second, Ethiopian cuisine is very hot. Red and green peppers abound (as do spicy sauces made using peppers) as do a variety of spices.

The food itself, on the other hand, tends to be what you'd expect from a pastoral economy; lamb, beef, and goat (there isn't any goat on the Abyssinian's menu, however), cottage cheese, yogurt, simple greens and vegetables. Chicken also appears to be quite popular and there are also plenty of purely vegetarian meals. Because Ethiopia is a land-locked country, however, there isn't much fish (the Abyssinian does have one freshwater fish entree).

Possibly the best way to describe the cuisine (and this isn't entirely accurate) is the type of food you'd expect at a Greek restaurant but prepared with the spices and flavors you'd expect if you went to the Shish Kebab House of Afghanistan (see my post back in July).

My wife and I were hoping to start with two orders of sambusa ($5.95 per order, with each order consisting of several sambusas). A sambusa is very much like a samosa, for those familiar with Indian cooking. For those not, it is a small simple pastry into which are stuffed all sorts of delicious meats, vegetables, and spices.

We wanted an order of lentil sambusas (made with green pepper, lentils, onions, and other stuff) and an order of vegetarian sambusa (made with carrots, potatoes, green beans, and other stuff). The Abyssinian's sambusas are excellent. Tasty and not too heavy; i.e. the perfect way to start a meal. Unfortunately, the kitchen wasn't making sambussa (this has happened to us at least once before) so we had to order something else.

We had a lentil salad (yemiser) which consisted of lentils, onions, peppers, and herbs ($5.95). I thought it was good but my wife loved it. The ingredients were all fresh and the flavors combined well. We also had a cottage cheese based dish consisting of fresh cottage cheese (ayb) with collard greens (also $5.95). My wife liked it, but I loved it. I thought the flavors and textures of the collard greens and the cottage cheese offset each other quite well.

For dinner, I had the yebeg wot ($12.95), which is a wonderful concoction of lamb cubes in a spicy and hot red pepper sauce which also includes ginger, garlic, onions, and cardamon. The flavor of the sauce does a great job of contrasting with the lamb and the texture of the sauce definitely offsets the texture of the lamb. The sauce also melds well into the porous bread and really brings it to life with a burst of peppery heat. I have had probably a half-dozen different entrees but this is my favorite.

My wife had the lega tibs ($13.95), which are beef cubes sauteed in onions, a variety of spices, and black pepper. This is one of my wife's favorite meals and I like it as well. Unfortunately, she found her meal just a tad overcooked, but certainly well within the range of what you would eat without complaint. For my part, I also thought it might be just a touch overdone. Frankly, however, it was still quite good.

I can't stress enough how good the food is at the Abyssinian and how it makes the wait more than worthwhile. In fact, eating at the Abyssinian is really an act of faith. You sit there and wait, kicking yourself for not going somewhere with better service hoping that the food justifies the long wait and it always does.

As you can see from the picture, the decor of the Abyssinian is a lot different than what you'd expect at a down-home ethnic restaurant. There really isn't any brickerbrac and although simple, the place is quite tasteful. My only criticism is the music, but not everyone will agree. There is jazz on a loop, but it is too loud (at least for my wife and me) and it tends to be a bit up-tempo and frenetic and not particularly relaxing.

The Abyssinian offers desert, but I don't think there is anything more than flan on the menu and given how long it takes to complete a service, we never stick around for desert. It also has a very basic selection of beer and it has also has a small, and pretty pedestrian, wine list. I had a Sam Adams on Saturday, but it really isn't the sort of place you go if you are looking to have a few beers or some wine with dinner.

I acknowledge that the Abyssinian is not for everyone. Ethiopian cuisine is very different than the food most people eat and it is pretty hot and spicy. The service is also a real challenge, which means you either have to re-arrange your dinner schedule or be prepared to wait; things most people generally aren't prepared to do. That said, the food is excellent and if you have an adventurous palette, or are just craving something different, try the Abyssinian. The food is absolutely delicious and you will find yourself richly rewarded for having made the trip.

As I said, the Abyssinian doesn't have a website, but here are some links to reviews and a maps. I couldn't find an on-line menu -;