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Rearing Trout

A lavish charcoal-driven summer retreat in Sheepshead Bay

The old frame house sits a stone's throw from Sheepshead Bay, its picture window dominated by a lightbulb-covered sign that spasmodically blinks "Café." But the window also contains a more alluring come-on: a banked-up fire of lump charcoal, from which a tongue of flame periodically flickers. Walk inside and pass a busy kitchen, then a utilitarian parlor filled with long tables to accommodate the extended families that are the café's bread and butter. Finally, find yourself in one of the city's nicest restaurant gardens, comfortable and almost lavish, with green tablecloths and a white lattice fence. It's a great summer asset, though on a recent Sunday afternoon the sky opened up, drenching and scattering the guests.

Garden Bay Café is one of the city's two Armenian eateries, hailing from the formerly Soviet Caucasus, a politically troubled region of mountains and petroleum that also includes Azerbaijan and Georgia. The menu is a wonderland of things you probably haven't tried before, including satsiva ($6), a cooling salad of irregular chicken tidbits smothered in dark walnut sauce. Also noteworthy is the Armenian salad, lettuces torn into miniature pieces tossed with delicate matchsticks of red radish, as refreshing to look at as it is to eat. The salad is sprayed with a subtle vinaigrette. Another appetizer is so wildly desirable that by mid-afternoon the waitress is likely to tell you they've run out of it: eggplant rolls ($5.50), delicate vegetal flutes stuffed with feta cheese. The wrapper remains resilient because the slices of eggplant have been blanched and pickled, but not really cooked.

The menu is oddly lacking in main courses. The dashingly named xashlama ($8) turns out to be a beautiful little crock of mutton, stewed so thoroughly that the fat absconded into the red gravy. It could have been a favorite of Dr. Atkins, since there's no potato or other starchy accompaniment, making it a better appetizer than an entrée. Paradoxically, you might consider picking an appetizer for your main course, especially the dull-sounding "dough stuffed with meat" ($8). Heaped upon the plate, oily and oniony, these capacious noodle purses resemble Uzbek manti. A lighter entrée choice is one of the three omelets ($6), very loose assemblages of egg and vegetables, a perfect sop for the flatbread called lavash. The most remarkable includes pickled peppers and eggplant, though the menu claims they're grilled. Unfortunately, the omelets are sometimes not available.

An urban retreat
photo: Kate Englund
An urban retreat

And now for the charcoal fire in the front window. The list of grilled items is far shorter than you might find in a Central Asian place, mainly omitting the organ meats, yet it contains several praiseworthy selections. Four to a plate, the baby lamb chops are distinguished ($14). Half of the polled respondents at the table one evening loved the thick pork chop ($9), while the other half reviled it because of the catsupy sauce it came smeared with. The most durable choice on several visits was a trout that arrived with blackened skin, rearing up from the plate in a way that might be described as gruesome. Yet the skin was crisp, and the abundant flesh had absorbed lots of smoke. It takes a good while to pick it apart and finish it, so look up at the sky just before you order and make sure there are no storm clouds in sight.

 
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