My father’s brother and his family are in town. They are important people in my life who I love and naturally, I wanted to take them to one of Yerevan’s best restaurants on their first night in town so that they come away with a great impression of the city when they leave next week. I know of two restaurants that are considered to be the créme de la créme of fine dining: Noyan Tun and Provence. Both of them feature French cuisine as the heart of the menu. We decided to give Noyan Tun a try.
Noyan Tun was a bit closer to the Hyatt where they’re staying and I have only heard high praise for the place. It’s in the basement of a wine shop that I’ve visited time and again over the course of the last 10 years. Now, my relatives are gourmands, they know exactly what to look for when dining out. They’ve lived around the world from New York to Johannesburg and they expect nothing but the best when it’s time to chow down. They never hold back on their opinions, no matter how harsh. My aunt takes great pride in her palate for exceptional wine, and while she’s in town she wants to sample as much domestically produced vintages as possible. They were last here in 2007 when the pickings for quality Armenian wines were very slim. Vinegary crap, basically.
The menu I noticed was heavy on salads and appetizers, including foie gras made locally especially for the restaurant. Foie gras is not what I occasionally eat. Something about force feeding geese to enlarge their livers for my enjoyment always rubbed me the wrong way (which I admit is hypocritical since I eat meats without discrimination). The foie gras nevertheless was both creamy and fatty but firm; imagine a rich, nutty butter served at room temperature. I’m no expert on pâté but it was indeed very nice.
At the waitress’s suggestion, a wonderful salad of grilled vegetables rolled in fresh pasta sarma-style topped with a balsamic glaze and and slab of goat cheese was brought out with a lovely pesto sauce, which was lightly poured on each plate at table by the waitress. Just a delight to taste.
Then the entrées were served. My uncle ordered the lamb shank prepared with a sauce made from espresso, which looked fabulously dark, like a high-end dark chocolate gelato, and he had no complaints. My cousin ordered the duck breast, cooked medium rare, served with roasted potatoes and shredded portobello mushrooms, which confounded all of us at first until we inquired as to what the seaweed-like stuff was.
My aunt and I selected the grilled tenderloin of beef, cooked a perfect medium rare. Despite the standard fancy steak knives that are serrated starting at the tip and running only about an inch down the blade, the meat cut like butter and dissolved on my tongue the same way. She complained that her cut was a bit tough but I was more fortunate. Mine came with a fantastic four pepper sauce, each berry bursting spicy peppery goodness around my mouth. It was served with a vegetable melange and Lyonnaise potatoes.
Afterwards a platter of assorted cheeses was served as we downed the second bottle of the Karas white. It was hands down one of the best dining experiences I’ve had in Yerevan, in large part due to my family’s presence. The dinner will set you back a bit, but it’s worth every dram.
Overall Rating: Superb
Quality of Service: Superb
Persona of Service: Superb
Presentation of Food: Superb
Flavor of Food: Not bad/Superb
Cleanliness: Not bad/Superb (Note: I did not enter the restroom)
Chicken is my thing. I’ve always been a chicken maniac of sorts. Linda raised my brother and me on chicken wings, back in the days when they couldn’t give the stuff away–this was before the buffalo wing phenomenon that still, somehow, endures. Lemon, garlic, salt and pepper, in the oven for a half hour. Crispy, garlicky, greasy, salty and peppery. It was one of my favorite dinners, I used to anticipate Linda’s wings, a longing refusing to be assuaged.
Chicken can be wonderfully prepared in all sorts of ways, using an infinite array of ingredients. You have to be a real idiot to screw up chicken (no comment). It’s such a diverse meat, so much can be done with it.
So I am always looking for new fowl-minded explorations, in my neverending quest to wander and peck my way through life. I was surprised to see Melissa Clark’s chicken and plums recipe, which was published just in time for Rosh Hashanah. You don’t ordinarily make a connection between meat and plums. The Georgians make ketchup-like sauces out of plums, actually. The only one I ever tried was nasty to say the least and I remember having to down some beer or apricot vodka or whatever the hell I was drinking to clean out my mouth. It took a few swirls of alchohol to do the trick. Those Georgians contributed two notable things to Caucasian cuisine–the khingali and khachaburi, both of which are actually not all that original if you ask me (a giant, boiled manti and oversized flakey beureg). But that’s a different story. We’re talking about chicken, damn it!
Some of my past dinner guests have undoubtedly tried my Roast Tarragon Chicken recipe. Been making it for years. As the name suggests, the dish involves lots of fresh tarragon. And I mean, the bird is covered in tarragon leaves. This plum chicken recipe calls for a whopping kilo of plums for two chickens. Melissa invited the reader to use one chicken and cut all the ingredients by half. Screw that! She knows what she’s talking about, we’re doing it her way.
This time of year is plum season in Armenia. And this summer has been a bountiful year for fruit. I don’t remember seeing so much fruit on the market in years. In the villages across the Ararat valley watermelons were piled up to resemble miniature mountains. They were selling the stuff for 50 dram, or about 15 cents, a kilo. Ridiculously low prices on summer fruits and vegetables here. For this recipe I decided to use both red and black plums, which are oblong and not round, like what you would see in a Boston suburban supermarket for instance (Market Basket, anyone?). Don’t ask me why the hell they’re oval shaped. Might be an Armenian thing. But they are succulent and they taste amazingly sweet. For some reason there was a whopping 2 cent difference in price between red and black, but screw it. Might as well do it right.
Another major ingredient of this recipe is sumac for the marinade–two tablespoons! I believe sumac is some sort of plant-like material. I am too lazy to look it up as I write this, but I’ve had it as a condiment in foods most of my life. I know Iranians love it in their cuisine. It has a wonderful tangy flavor to it, sort of lemony, but without the pulp and effort needed to extract the juices, then the clean up, the annoying stickiness and the aggravating scrubbing and scraping involved after it dries out, when it’s all over the counters and floor and your fingers and your bald head … wait I’m digressing again. The sumac that I had on the shelf packed by the Santa Anna company (do not buy any of their spices!) sold in many grocery stores in Yerevan was looking a little on the brown side. From my experience quality sumac should have a warm, maroon hue. So I made a trip to this new spice store that opened up on the corner of Deryan and Sayat Nova called JL Spice. Gorgeous store, all sorts of wonderful spices to be had, everything enclosed in plexiglass containers. It’s the only place in Yerevan where I’ve seen saffron being sold by the kilo. They also sell narghile and e-cigarettes for some odd reason. Their sumac looks gorgeous and it smells amazing–you can actually sense that tartness in your nostrils with a strong whiff. Wonderful stuff. I bought 100 grams of it for a buck (450 dram).
The chickens, the chickens… I just go to Nor Zovk on my street. I buy my boneless chicken breasts there, too for the gourmet chow I make for my chihuahua, who is my occasional food taster. The beef and pork are hit or miss, but that’s a story for another post. I asked for 2 chickens on the big side. They are all the same size for the most part and not oven stuffers by any means, but they’re pretty tasty.
The first thing Melissa requires is to zest two lemons. One of the most indispensable tools in the kitchen, besides a sturdy, high quality chef’s or Santoku knife (have two), is a top-notch hand-held grater. The Microplane is a miracle of culinary science. It’s well worth paying $15 bucks for one at a home goods or kitchen store (like BB&B). It’s especially great for parmesan cheese and also garlic. I am an amateur zester, so it took me about five minutes per lemon to grate the rind. I hope to shave a minute off my zesting time soon. The zest is combined with sumac, garlic, olive oil, some cinnamon and allspice (special thanks to Effendi), then set aside to be smeared all over the chickens once the ladies are washed out with warm salt water.
For the garlic use a good crusher or else a grater. By all means, chop if you like. But to get that annoying peel off, first slam your chef’s knife onto the garlic cloves. Actually, doing that will probably launch the garlic all over the kitchen. Press down firmly with the knife and you’ll see that the skin flakes right off.
The plums are washed then cut in half and pitted. Use a high-quality honey–still have the stuff from Meghri on hand, which has a faintly rosewater-like aroma. The honey does not and probably should not be transparent and smooth– the cloudier and lumpier the better in my experience. Shallots as far as I know do not exist in Armenia. You have scallions, red onions, white onions, garlic. Never seen a shallot in 11 years here. Substitute a medium-sized onion, no one is going to know the difference (what the hell does a shallot taste like, anyway?). I omitted the bay leaf because I’m out of them. Add a half ounce more allspice to compensate if you feel guilty about it.
Note to the wise–these days I am usually sticking with sea salt, which tends to be stronger than regular store-bought salt. So if something calls for a teaspoon, you can probably get away with half. If it’s not salty enough to everyone’s liking, put a salt shaker on the table. The less added salt in recipes the better. Armenians use way, way too much salt in their food. Do not bother with going out and buying kosher salt for this recipe, unless you or your guests are Jewish or something. Sea salt is perfectly fine.
So I smeared the ladies all over with the sumac-garlic-lemon zest goodness. I found some old dried springs of thyme so I inserted some of those into the cavities (my guests were asking what the twigs were). I don’t have a roasting rack (shame on me) so the girls rested on 4 potatoes each in the roasting pan, along with the plum and honey mixture. I did exactly what Melissa said to do–baked those babies for a half hour then took them out and poured lemon juice and olive oil all over them before throwing them back into the oven. The chicken was tangy, garlicky and juicy. The plums were so ripe that a thick, extraordinary gravy was actually formed at the bottom of the pan.
Serve with garlic mashed potatoes, broccoli, a simple salad (tomato, cucumber, oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh ground black pepper, sea salt). Or choose your favorite side dish. It’s chicken, everything goes with it!
I have always been an eggplant lover. When it’s on the table I can’t get enough of it. Armenians have a tendency to overcook italian eggplants, especially when roasting them on a skewer (or rather a set of two, with one going through each end, around four are lined up). Optionally they insert raw pork fat inside to add some high-octane cholesterol. If you are not careful the flesh within will turn into a disturbing squid-like mass of crap that is unappetizing. The fat does not help matters, believe me.
My grandmother Clara invented a clever, rather irresistable eggplant dish that I have had my entire life. She took the fat-ass eggplants that are sold in US supermarkets, sliced them a half inch or so thick, sliced onion, tomato and green bell pepper. It would all be piled up in mounds, the eggplant slices on top and bottom, all held together by a flat toothpick. It would look like a sort of club sandwich in the end. She would saute ground beef with spices and parsley, then layer the mixture between the onion and tomato. Topped with a smear of tomato paste and another small onion slice, which resembled a cap. This would all rest in a Pyrex glass baking pan and cook for I believe a half-hour or so. I grew up with this dish, it was the ultimate comfort food to me. I have not attempted to replicate the dish, probably because it’s sacrilege. I know it will never come out the same.
Her dish was basically a variation of imam bayildi–also known as “the priest fainted” (it actually wasn’t an imam contrary to popular belief–GG). Rumor has it that a priest after sitting down to dinner had a forkful and passed out from the savory goodness of the dish. The apostolic priesthood has been reeling from the trauma ever since.
Imam bayildi is prepared in all sorts of ways apparently, aside from the boat-like dish where an Italian eggplant is sliced vertically after frying or roasting and filled with a veggie mixture consisting of garlic, tomatoes and onions and other assorted spices or greens before being baked. Most recipes seem to be a major pain in the ass to prepare, with lots of prepping, sautéing and roasting for seemingly hours on end involved.
In comes Linda to set it all straight. Linda, who is originally of the Russian clan, has managed to perfect the simplest Armenian and Anatolian dishes throughout her 45 year experience in the kitchen. Quite simply, she is an expert–sarma, dolma, sini kufta, kheyma/chi kufta, tahini bread, simit cookies, choreg, you name it. Back in the day she introduced manti–little toasted meat wontons that simmer in chicken broth and are served topped with garlic-infused yoghurt and ground sumac–to a family of Kharpertsis who never heard of the stuff. She’s always managed to perform wonders with a handful of ingredients on hand and a little magic that she is finally relaying to me.
My mother’s version of imam bayildi is straight and simple. After all the prep work–which consists simply of washing and chopping vegetables–it takes about a half hour or so to cook.
First off is the eggplant. I used about six italian eggplants and cut them in half to three-quarter inch slices then set them aside.
Next come the onions, about four-six small ones or a few large ones, and about six small, very ripe tomatoes–get it all out of the way first. No need to be precisely geometric with the onions, dears. Cut them fast before your sinuses empty out onto the chopping board.
The eggplant is fried in plain “light” olive oil—non-virgin since extra virgin olive oil has a low heat threshold and starts smoking in no time. Use only olive oil, no canola, corn, sunflower or whatever else. I recommend a deep, non-stick pot. I use the higher-end Cuisinart super-durable anodized nonstick cookware, not the flimsy teflon crap.
Once the eggplant becomes soft but not very mushy add “a shitload” of coarsely chopped garlic, which comes out to be about a small head or so, and continue sautéing. When the eggplants have browned and softened quite nicely add the tomatoes and onions. For the last batch I also threw in a single chopped red bell pepper just for the hell of it. Here’s my twist–add a heaping teaspoon of capers and sprinkle some Herbes de Provence in there, too. In my experience eggplant is divine with capers due to the miracles of culinary science. Don’t forget some fine sea salt and fresh ground black pepper. Mix it all up with a good spatula or your favorite stirring utensil then cover and simmer for 20 or so minutes until it’s all nice and soft, but not squishy by any means. Serve at room temperature, and optionally garnish with pignoli.