By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
TAMPA — "Abol bunna" means the first strong pour from a pot of coffee. Listen to Azeb Bezabeh describe a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony and you begin to feel like Starbucks is all wet. Coffee usually comes after lunch (the day's big meal). The kids are shooed outside, and the grown-ups get comfortable. This thing isn't rushed.
A bit of gossip and a little talking politics, then comes the lighting of incense and the roasting of coffee beans until they release a competing aroma. The oily, dark beans are then ground fine right at the table and stirred into a "jebena," a round-bottomed pot. Hot water is poured, and time ticks by while the coffee steeps (more gossip, politics). The eldest in the room is served first, each tiny china cup filled in an arcing stream from the jebena high above.
Abol Bunna, the second Ethiopian restaurant to open recently in South Tampa, performs these coffee ceremonies after 4 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays for four or more people. The owners buy Ethiopian beans green, and the resulting brew is intense like Turkish coffee but less gritty. Drink it black, a pungent oomph of contrast to sweet, flaky baklava.
St. Mary's Ethiopian Orthodox Church between Brandon and Tampa and an increasing number of local Ethiopian expats prompted Bezabeh and her husband, Teddy Habtemariam, to take the plunge. Truth is, most of the food is accessible enough that even the Ethiopian cuisine newbie will feel at ease. Then add to that a smattering of familiar Italian dishes (an Italian occupation between 1935 and 1946 left a lasting legacy of pasta use and traditional dishes like Bolognese sauce, given a little African seasoning tweak), and no one's left out in the cold.
Salads are crunchy and tangy with lemon or vinegar: Tuna, green pepper and tomato ($4.99) or lentils and onion with just a whisper of jalapeno ($3.99) make great shared appetizers, scooped up with hanks of spongy injera bread.
A veggie ($9.99) and a meat variety platter ($15.99) will amply serve a table of four, providing tastes of most of Abol Bunna's best tibs and wats (wats are traditional Ethiopian spicy stews, often with chicken, and tibs are sauteed dishes). The exception is the excellent soft-sauteed pumpkin wat ($7.99), given a kick of red pepper. You'll have to order that separately.
Gargantuan rounds of injera are decorated with dollops of stews, their colors ranging from deep brown to pale orange and brick red. Pretty, but it starts getting messy quickly as people plow into beef with collard greens, mild yellow split peas or powdered peas rich with garlic, hands armed with swaths of tangy, pancake-like bread (or, if you want to be a spoilsport, a fork). For those of Ethiopian extraction, this may just seem like dinner, albeit a good one. For the rest of us, this kind of communal, utensil-free meal is lively and festive, especially when capped off with an "abol" of rich Ethiopian coffee and a bit of gossip.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.