Friday marked the 100-year anniversary of the Armenian genocide, when 1.5 million people were killed and another 1.5 million were displaced under the Ottoman Empire, in the area that is now Turkey. To honor their ancestors, about 250 people marched on Friday, demanding the U.S. government and Turkey actually acknowledge the killings as genocide. On Sunday, thousands of Armenians from all over the country rallied in Times Square. Afterward, many ate at Almayass (24 East 21st Street; 212-473-3100), a Flatiron District eatery specializing in Lebanese-Armenian cuisine.
Husband-and-wife team Shant and Rita Alexandrian opened their first restaurant in Beirut twenty years ago. Along with 250,000 other Armenians, their families escaped to Lebanon during the diaspora. It’s one of the most popular eateries in the city, frequently appearing on travel sites and city guides (including in the New York Times‘ 36 Hours column). Investors throughout the Middle East purchased franchise rights to the concept, opening copies in Riyadh, Qatar, Kuwait, and Abu Dhabi. The family opened a second location, in New York, three years back.
The majority of the fare is Lebanese infused with the family’s Armenian heritage. With close to 60 items on the menu, though, there are plenty of strictly Armenian dishes, too, many of which have been passed down through generations. As is customary within the culture, most of the items are designed to be consumed family-style. The fare shares many similarities with Eastern Mediterranean and Eurasian cuisine: Greek, Lebanese, Turkish, Persian. Mint, parsley, olives, sumac, and fresh vegetables (lots of eggplant) are common. And meat is nearly ubiquitous.
Lentil kafta ($9) is one of the traditional items. Cooked legumes are mashed together with crushed wheat, parsley, onion, sumac, and crushed red pepper in a sort of vegetarian kebab. On the carnivorous side, there’s basterma, similar to what could be considered Armenian prosciutto or pastrami: It’s dried, cured beef available on its own or in the basterma Almayass ($14) on slices of toasted bread, topped with quail egg. There’s also soujuk, a customary beef sausage that gets a touch of heat from the addition of red pepper. Here, it’s offered on its own, with fresh tomato, or in table-side flambé.
Dumpling-like dishes are another mainstay of the cuisine. At Almayass, all of the pastry and ingredients are prepared in-house from scratch, including the dough. Beregs ($11), or byorek, are fried handheld pies filled with meat or cheese, somewhat similar to empanadas; they’re offered with Lebanese cheese or ground beef. Subereg ($9), or su byorek, is more like an Albanian burek or a lasagna made of phyllo. Soft layers of dough are layered with cheese and pastry. Mantee ($18) is one of the most popular items on the menu. Similar to ravioli, but formed into the shape of a canoe, this dumpling is more intricate than the other pastries. Filled with either ground beef or spinach, it’s baked then topped with garlic yogurt sauce and a sprinkle of sumac (for the meat) or red pepper powder (for the vegetarian).
Like many other cultures from that part of the world, grilled meat is huge for Armenians. Cooked at home, in restaurants, and even fast-food places, kebabs (khorovats) are extremely popular. Almayass offers several. There are familiar renditions of varieties like kafta ($24), or charbroiled and seasoned ground beef; marinated filet mignon shish kebabs ($32); and chicken flavored with sumac and other spices. All three come together in the assorted grill ($35). The sweet and sour kebab ($30) is the rarest and the most unique to Armenia (although it originated with Armenians and Syrian Jews in Aleppo). Preserved white cherries are cooked in a stew, then poured over charcoal-grilled ground-beef kebabs. Crushed, dried pita is underneath.
There are currently no strictly Armenian restaurants in the city. In many ways, the fusion found at Almayass is indicative of the ways Armenians were forced to change and adapt to new homes after the diaspora. Families ended up all over the world, landing in places like Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, France, and the United States, so it’s natural that some of the cuisine would blend over the course of a century. Still, partner, general manager, and son-in-law of the Alexandrians Mario Arakelian says, “Lebanese-Armenian is not a common combination even in Lebanon, unless the family comes from Armenian roots.”
New York boasts residents from just about every country in the world, and many of them have opened restaurants dedicated to their homeland cuisine. We’re celebrating the resulting diversity of this city’s dining scene by eating around the globe, from A to Z, without leaving the city limits. Every week, we’ll be hunting down a restaurant that represents a different country, from Afghanistan all the way to Zimbabwe and everywhere in between.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 28, 2015