Address through Aug.: 6427 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
Opening Sept. 6: 5849 San Pablo Ave., Oakland
In case you haven’t yet noticed the painted windows on Telegraph Avenue proclaiming the news, another venerable 31-year-old restaurant is closing. But no tears need be shed, as this is the beginning of a grand new chapter for award-winning Café Colucci, which is one of Oakland’s oldest Ethiopian restaurants. This month it will shutter, and next month it will move into a space three times its present size, but only a five minute drive away from its home of over three decades.
Café Colucci’s general manager, Daniel Aderaw Yeshiwas, has been eating at Cafe Colucci since it opened in 1991, when he was 4 years old. His mother, Selamawit Kekede, has been a lifelong friend of the restaurant’s founder, Fetlework Tefferi, whom he calls “Auntie” (a sign of respect for a close older person).
For many of the last few years, Tefferi has been in Ethiopia, managing her spice and herb processing facility in Modjo, which employs 45 people to grow and blend the essential components of Colucci’s ancient cuisine and its retail spice business, Brundo.
Meanwhile, Yeshiwas was searching for a space that would allow the restaurant and its sister spice shop to expand. He is thrilled to have found it, less than two miles away, at 5849 San Pablo Ave. This location formerly housed biscuit pizza spot Soul Slice, which opened and closed over the course of several months last year; before that, it was the home of Noodle Theory Provisions. (The East Bay Express was the first to report the news.)
Colucci’s expansion is a great comeback story for a business that nearly closed during the pandemic. “COVID completely changed our whole operation,” Yeshiwas said. No longer could they serve their large, shared platters, and it was practically impossible to have social distancing between cooks in their minuscule kitchen.
Kitchen size was just one of the constraints of Colucci’s current location: As it’s on the ground floor of residential building, they couldn’t offer performance events or live music, as they’d always hoped to do. Even upgrading the electrical system to allow the addition of an espresso machine was a challenge, Yeshiwas said.
Happily, the kitchen at the new location provides three times as much room for its cooks to spread out. More visibly, the new space also allows them to open up an injera making station, where patrons can watch cooks make the spongy, slightly sour flatbread that serves as tablecloth, plate and utensil.
Tefferi and Yeshiwas also have big plans for the bar they have inherited in their new space. Their slate of cocktails — a first for the restaurant — will incorporate traditional herbs and spices, such as fat belly bessobela, a sweet and spicy lemonade steeped with Ethiopian basil that has a mezcal kick. They will also serve Ethiopian beers and honey wines.
There are also plans afoot to produce their own tej (a wine made from honey) and tella (beer made from sorghum and teff) in a few months. They already have the oak barrels to age them in. Tefferi is working to create recipes for these libations incorporating gesho, the brewing hops she grows in Ethiopia that will add a subtle flavor to the drinks.
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The new Café Colucci will serve their same menu plus additional dishes, many of which will compliment a broader service day that will eventually kick off with spiced lattes, baked goods like teff ginger cookies and banana bread topped with nigella seeds and small breakfast bites. Dining will extend into the evenings, when they will offer live music, with one or two musicians, such as an Ethiopian jazz pianist and a singer. For folks who prefer to dine outside, when the restaurant first opens, it will offer outdoor seating on the patio behind the restaurant for all meals. Eventually, Yeshiwas said, they will add seating on the sidewalk in front, as well.
Weekend brunches, which they plan to begin in October, will feature dishes such as enkulal firfir (scrambled eggs with jalapeños and clarified butter), spiced chicken dish doro wot fitfit, azifa (lavender hued soft-cooked lentils with garlic, onions and lemon), homemade cheese and a pale yellow vegan dish called buticha, which is a creamy cloud of chickpea flour, olive oil, garlic and onions with a hint of jalapeño.
All brunches will include a version of the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, an ancient ritual during which a woman lights incense, washes and dries green coffee beans, roasts them in a special pan and passes them around for guests to enjoy the aroma. Then she grinds and boils them in water in a special long–necked, handmade, black clay pot, called a jebena. When the brew is judged to be ready (which may necessitate some back and forth decanting from the jebena into another vessel), the finished coffee is poured from the jebena held high above a tray of cups, which are then passed around.
The connecting thread for all these meals is Brundo, the spice business that Tefferi established in Ethiopia to ensure that the dozens of spices and herbs used in her restaurant’s recipes retain their authentic flavor. (In 2015, she described for Nosh the goal of her business: to help Ethiopian farmers thrive using their traditional agricultural methods and to support the women who are the master spice blenders.) Brundo will have a dedicated space inside the restaurant’s new location, and will offer spices for sale.
Those spices can offer a key to the culture. Cooking Ethiopian cuisine takes time, for example, the onions, which are the basis for almost every dish, must be slowly sautéed, sometimes for hours. Spices can provide a less labor-intensive way of maintaining the cultural connection. “As a second-generation Ethiopian, growing up outside the country, I still want to enjoy the distinctive taste of the spices,” Yeshiwas said, “but maybe without having to cook the onions for hours.” He is creating dishes that mix the two worlds, for example avocado toast, topped with their berbere chili pepper blend.
Another of Tefferi’s goals is to educate diners who appreciate the 3000-year-old cuisine of her homeland about how they can use these spices at home. The new space will provide room for their popular cooking classes, which they hope to start holding on mornings in November. Topics will include how to use traditional herbs and spices to create a variety of veggie dishes, or how to make injera.
The Telegraph location of Café Colucci will close at the end of August, and the new location will open with limited hours and offerings on Sept. 6. The goal is to have things humming along by Sept. 11, which is Enkutatash, the the Ethiopian and Eritrean New Year. It’s the biggest celebratory fete of the year, Tefferi and Yeshiwas said, a holiday that honors new beginnings.
Featured image: Cafe Colucci general manager, Daniel Aderaw Yeshiwas (left) and founder Fetlework Tefferi. Credit: Melati Citrawireja