Before I tell you about a perfectly spectacular Armenian meal, please allow me to whine a little bit about my own incompetence. Over the past several years, I’ve made four attempts to track down a legit Armenian meal. None of the first three worked worth a poop.
- Attempt #1: I dragged three friends—including an Armenian pal—to Garden Bay Café in Sheepshead Bay, roughly a 2.5-hour round-trip from my then-home in Midtown. Trouble was, some idiot (this buttmunch) neglected to call ahead, and the restaurant was long gone, replaced by a short-lived House O’ Uzbek Horse Meat. It was delicious, but not Armenian.
- Attempt #2: After the aforementioned Armenian friend said that I shouldn’t bother visiting Sevan, NYC’s only remaining Armenian restaurant, he promised to make an Armenian meal for me. Then he started dating a model, was admitted to an Ivy League MBA program, and suddenly had better things to do than cook for my jiggly, non-model self. (I’d be offended, except that I’d probably happily trade myself in for a model if I could. Or a nice plate of nachos. Either way.)
- Attempt #3: I finally gave up on the home-cooked Armenian meal, and trekked over to Sevan on a sunny winter afternoon. (Nope, it’s not winter. Yes, I might be a ludicrously lazy blogger.) Sevan is located in Bayside, Queens, which I think might technically be part of, like, Vermont or something. A three-hour round trip to Bayside got me nowhere: the restaurant was closed, and some idiot (this buttmunch again) had neglected to call ahead. I nibbled on some tasty cheese pies and choreg (sweet bread) from the bakery, but ultimately felt really, really dumb for yet again stupiding myself out of a full Armenian meal.
And that brings me to Armenian attempt #4. I called ahead. I brought a posse of five friends, including zero Armenians. We ate Armenian food. It didn’t suck.
But at the beginning of the meal, I was vaguely worried that the place might kind of suck, partly because the aforementioned Armenian pal insisted that Sevan was pretty lousy. (Then again, the dude is dating a model and attended an Ivy League MBA program, so maybe his standards are out of control?) The six of us exchanged perplexed glances after we received room-temperature pita bread with butter (huh?), followed by a thoroughly bland rendition of babaganoush.
But then everything got much, much better once we realized that babaganoush isn’t particularly Armenian.
As we started munching on Sevan’s back patio, the waiter informed us that the restaurant mostly caters to large groups. On this particular Friday night, the indoor dining area was populated by a bunch of bespeckled old farts watching a presentation about how social media is ruining society. (Click here to follow me on Twitter, bespeckled old farts.) Aside from the creaky angry mob of social media haters, we were Sevan’s only customers.
Fortunately, this meant that Arthur, Sevan’s owner and chef, had time to drop by our table. We explained that we were specifically interested in Armenian food, not just general central Asian cuisine.
After that, everything was absolutely peachy.
As it turns out, only a fraction of the dishes on the menu were truly Armenian. The chef emphatically gestured toward a few dishes on the menu: “Pelmeni. That’s Russian. Forget about that! Khinkali. That’s Georgian. Forget about that! You want manti. That’s Armenian! You want kabobs! Our spices are Armenian, nobody makes kabobs like us…”
So we did exactly what the nice Armenian chef told us to do. We munched on basturma (a mild Armenian rendition of ham, similar to prosciutto); sujuk (a spectacular cumin-spiked Armenian beef sausage, vaguely reminiscent of an unusually thoughtful salami); a deliciously lemony, house-made Armenian version of stuffed grape leaves; a spectacular Armenian salad loaded with an imported Armenian spice I’d never heard of; and some excellent filo dough-wrapped spinach and cheese pies, vaguely similar to Greek spanikopita or Maltese pastizzi.
And then there was the manti, which deserves a prize as one the more novel versions of dumplings I’ve encountered in NYC. Most dumplings (Ukrainian vareniki, Mongolian buuz, Georgian khinkali, etc.) are wonderful and speak for themselves; no adornment is usually provided. Interestingly, Sevan’s manti were relatively petite—roughly the size of small beef-stuffed tortellini—and topped with a drizzle of garlicky sour cream and a sauce that tasted like ripe tomatoes. Genius.
And those kabobs that the chef raved about? They were both flashy and delicious, served on sword-sized skewers on a still-flaming platter (which, incidentally, is pathologically difficult to capture in a photo if you’re as sh*tty of a photographer as I am). We opted for the mixed grill combo for four people ($56 for a mix of beef, chicken, and lamb kabobs) and the meat didn’t disappoint: everything was perfectly seasoned and cooked, without even a hint of toughness, just as Chef Arthur had promised.
So yeah, that Ivy League Armenian dude who was dating a model? Well, he was wrong: Sevan is pretty darned good, especially if you eat exactly what the nice chef tells you to eat. By now, that Ivy League guy probably has a Rolls-Royce and a house full of supermodel children. But I’m not jealous: I ate my face full of manti and flaming kabobs. Who needs a model?