24 East 21st Street (at Broadway; map); 212-473-3100; almayassnyc.com
Service: Strangely inconsistent. Formal in procedure, but very informal in execution.
Setting: Gorgeously decorated, semi formal.
Must-Haves: Mouhamarra, moutabbal, lentil soup, beef tongue, ferri.
Cost: Small plates $7 to $17, mains $22 to $30
It's always a gamble trying to adapt a successful overseas concept to the fickle U.S. market. Occasionally you might strike gold—think: Till Death Do Us Part's metamorphosis into All In The Family. But more often than not, you end up with Chateau Snavely or Payne desperately trying to capture the magic of Fawlty Towers.
Having spent a few meals out at Almayass, the successful Middle Eastern chain of Armenian restaurants that has most recently expanded to Manhattan's Flatiron neighborhood, it feels more like the American version of The Office: a refreshingly unique and strong beginning that gets progressively less exciting.
The original Almayass (which, for the record, has the most mind-numbingly frustrating Flash-based website I've ever seen) was opened by Rita and Shant Alexandrian a decade and a half ago in Beirut, but the focus of its food expands beyond the Middle Eastern Mediterranean cuisine of Lebanon into that of the Alexandrian's Armenian parentage—nuts, fruits, and fresh herbs, play heavily into the dishes here, along with intensely tart sumac, acidic lemon, or hot Aleppo pepper (a favorite flavor amongst the hipster restaurants these days).
The clean space is gorgeously decorated with lively Armenian artwork by Rita herself, and is divided in two down the center with the left side reserved for full service dining and the right side maintained as a bar and lounge. They have two separate entrances and strict segregation policies.
On one visit, I wanted to dine alone in the dining room and order off the regular menu. I was whisked to the bar where I was then told to order off the bar menu. Eventually, the bartender sent me back outside and through the other entrance, only to be brought right back by the Alidz—an Alexandrian daughter—who sat me in the lounge. They were all very friendly through the four-door ordeal, setting a rather comedic tone for the rest of the meal.
My general impression of service is that the waiters and owners are extremely thoughtful in what they do and are wildly invested in giving you a great experience, just that perhaps their idea of good service is different from mine.
An extensive menu of over 50 hot and cold mezze will have you struggling. Do you want the mouhammara ($9.50)—a buttery spread of walnuts, pinenuts, and peppers, with the sweet-and-sour note of pomegranate molasses weaving them together—or perhaps the moutabbal ($9)? The latter is the Armenian version of baba ghanouj; a lemony eggplant dip, lightly smoky with a hint of sesame, studded with pomegranate seeds that pop with sweet juice.
Truth is, you can't go wrong with either, or, for that matter, most of the cold or warm mezze. Grilled Halloumi ($10) is rich slabs of squeaky cheese that seem more fried than grilled (not that I'm complaining). An Turkish-Armenian lasagna of pate a brik, layered with cheese known as subereg ($9), is equally comforting in its richness.
Moujadara ($8) is a creamy lentil pilaf comes peeking out from under a shower of sweet, crisply fried shallots. Another strong case for lentils is made with Almayass' lentil soup ($7), which pulled my wife away from conversation for a good five minutes—how can I compete with a rich, multi-layered bowl of rice, lentils, and fried pita bread softened to a savory porridge-like consistency.
I found little consolation in the lentil kefta ($9) made with pinenuts and bulgur wheat that lacked brightness or texture. Nor did I with the falafel ($7), which was overly dense and underseasoned. A gravy boat-ful of terrific tahini was its saving grace.
More than once I made the mistake of straying out of the small plates section into the main courses listed on the last page of the menu. They were without fail disappointing.
Kafta kebabs ($22)—usually rich and flavorful, bursting with lamb fat—were instead made of mind-blowingly dry beef served over improbably dry pita with a large handful chopped parsley (also dry), I practically begged my server for olive oil or a wedge of lemon—anything to add some moisture. The khashkash kebab ($24) is a moderate improvement with some smoky broiled chopped tomato adding flavor and moisture; like putting a nice hat on an unrescuably ugly head.
Indeed, I'd say that red meat cookery is Almayass' biggest shortcoming. If you must stray into kebab territory, the sweet and sour kebab ($29) was the only remotely enjoyable version, and only then because of the massive pile of sour cherries piled on top of same dry, bland meat.
On one visit I happened to run into the chef—a transport from Lebanon who has worked with the Alexandrians for over a decade—outside the restaurant and asked about his odd choice of beef over lamb. His explanation was that while their Middle Eastern branches all use lamb, American customers are not used to eating it.
Ironically, the only successful main course is their lamb chops, which, while overcooked, are plenty fatty and flavorful.
After the fourth unsuccessful kebab, I learned my lesson and stuck to small plates, for which I was rewarded with their excellent Beef Tongue ($13), which as president, founder, and sole member of the World Wide Association of Tongue Lovers, I can get behind. It looks a little gristly, but melts into intense, beefy richness in your mouth with a simple dressing of garlic, lemon and olive oil.
But meat can also be hit or miss the the mezze; the lightly sour and well-seasoned Armenian pastrami variant known as Basterma ($11) was outstanding with its fried quail egg topping on one trip, but unfortunately overcooked on another. Similarly, soujuk ($10)—a salami-like sausage—was too overcooked to enjoy.
If you must have meat, the more Mediterranean-influenced middle section of their menu is your best bet. Little ferri—fried quail—are a steal at $6. Crisp and juicy with an intensely lemony sauce flavored with garlic and pepper. And they eat chicken wings in Armenia? Apparently so, and the chicken wings Provençal ($12) are excellent, with more of that lemony, garlicky sauce, and a big handful of cilantro added to the mix.
The Lamb Sweet Breads come in all of their creamy, glandular, offal glory—no crisp coatings or other ingredients to hide their nature here—all you've got is a lemony, olive oily, sumac-dusted broth that sops into their nooks and crannies. Now this is a fine way to finish a meal.
I can't pretend to be a great judge of Middle Eastern desserts—they are an acquired taste for which I've just never acquired. I can say that I enjoyed the Ossmalieh Almayass ($12)—a next of crisp vermicelli soaked in milk and honey topped with a Cousin Itt like toupée of halva floss and a scattering of pistachios—far more than any of the three Sorbets (mint, rose, and coffee, $8), which were all far too syrupy sweet.
With servers who are earnest but not particularly useful in their ordering recommendations, dining at Almayass can be a bit of an adventure—you're almost guaranteed that at least half the plates on your table will be stunningly delicious and exotic while the other half will have you reaching for your water. Sticking with the small plates and vegetarian food will vastly increase your time spent on the greener side of the field.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.