Missi and Casey accompanied Himself and me to Carousel Restaurant in that section of Hollywood where Little Armenia and Thai Town flow together and interweave. If you're ever hungry and stranded in Los Angeles, this is the BEST neighborhood to be in. It's jam packed with restaurants of these two entirely different cultures, both of which excel at laying out a generous spread of amazingly good food.
We decided that we were game for the Hollywood Feast, so-named because of the restaurant's location. Our server's eyebrows headed toward the ceiling. "Are you SURE?" she asked. "Yes!" we affirmed in our blind optimism, figuring that if it was on the menu then it must be doable. And if we were going to overdose on food, best that it be really tasty--and reasonably healthy--stuff. But then a tidal wave of dishes began to flow over our table. Every time our server set something down, she warned us that more was on the way.
I counted 23 different items, 25 if you include the lavash and olives--okay, 26, since there were two types of olives. The idea was to enjoy a bite or two of each item and take the rest home, which we did. But the food was so tasty that we couldn't stop after just one bite of each. Fresh and flavorful were the keywords for everything. I'm sure there wasn't a can stashed anywhere in their kitchen, or a boxed mix or anything frozen.
I'm meze-crazy! Clockwise, starting from 12:00:There were the standard meze: baba ghanoush and dolmas--which Armenians call mutabbal and warak enab--hammos, tabbulleh and fattoush salad, all of which were exemplary. We could have made a meal off of these, along with our olives, pickled turnips and lavash.
muhammara, mutabbal, tabbulleh, & hammos
muhammara, mutabbal, tabbulleh, & hammos
Fattoush Salad: tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, bell peppers, parsley, mint & pita chips, tossed with a spicy lemon dressing
And the amazing meze just kept coming! Clockwise from 12:00: labneh with peppers, beef liver with tomatoes & onions, sarma & shanklish)Muhammara is a mixture of ground walnuts, pomegranate syrup and aleppo pepper paste. When that heats you up, you can dive into the labneh, to cool you off, a delicious compensation. The shanklish is a flavorful salad made of spicy cheese, tomatoes, onions and fresh mint leaves.
While I'm not a huge fan of beef liver, this liver was seriously good--good enough that, yes, I'd order it again. It was well-seasoned and cooked with lemon juice, which helped lighten that thick organy-ness. And they didn't bread it, so it wasn't unnecessarily heavy.
Fatayers & KebbehThen we had several types of fatayer, that is, lavash filled with meat, eggplant and cheese (some grilled and some baked), and fried kebbeh, which looked like footballs filled with beef. The rest of our food was and heavy on vegetables--and nothing else was breaded or fried--so we munched the kebbeh and the super-thin breads with minimal guilt.
MaanehThe maaneh, tiny lamb sausages, were tasty and aromatic--almost perfumed. The other sausages were larger and looked and tasted a little like elk, but I'm not sure just what they were. My ID'ing skills on that one are: 1. It's meat. 2. It's tasty.
Kebbeh NayyehSpeaking of tasty, the kebbeh nayyeh, or steak tartar, was amazing. Creamy and rich with just the right balance of seasonings, onion, tomato and parsley.
lovely, lovely roasted meats with lavashThen a platter of roasted meats arrived--beef fillet, chicken and lula kabab, all possessing just the right amount of char. To some major-league meat eaters, this might not look like enough meat for four people, but with the other meats and all the other forms of protein we'd already had, we were full by the time this arrive. Still, we had to sample it all. And did I mention the rice and bulghur pilafs? Yes, I'm feeling full again, just typing these words--yet hungry at the same time. How does THAT work?!
Himself and I began to feel like amateurs in the eating department. Missi, who had put in a good run that morning, more than replenished what she'd burned off that day. Even Casey, who leads a super-active life in the great out-o'-doors climbing mountains and scouting wildlife, began to slow down at this point. We may have we hit the wall, but at least it was in a good way. It's like being a happy tired.
Ash el SarayyaOur beverages ranged from the salty tun, a plain yogurt drink that's wonderfully refreshing on a hot day, to the super-sweet jallab, a grape molasses and rosewater drink topped with pine nuts. I think the jallab would have made a good dessert. Believe it or not, we were brave enough (yeah, brave is the word I'm going to use) to order dessert, although the four of us shared ONE item, and we didn't quite finish it. Ash el sarayya is a honeycake topped with thick cream and ground, toasted pistachios. It's actually lighter than this description would lead you to believe.
The cuisines of the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean overlap to a great extent. Aside from variations in spelling of the dishes and slight differences in seasoning and cooking methods, the primary difference I find between Armenian food and the region's other cuisines is its bread. While the pita is ubiquitous throughout this region, lavash is the bread of choice on the Armenian table. A super-thin, unleavened bread, lavash is used for dips, sandwiches and wraps. (Pitas may be flat, but they still require yeast to achieve their cushiony texture.) There's something really satisfying about the texture of lavash. It's soft, smooth and delicate but becomes wonderfully crackly when you toast it.
Typically, when I ask someone in a Greek restaurant, or Lebanese or Armenian or Persian or Turkish what makes their food distinctive from those of their neighbor countries, the response is usually, "Ours is the best!" I've eaten many meals from this region of the world, and I've yet to be disappointed. These folks are serious about their food. Our Armenian feast is one of the best meals I've had yet. And the leftovers were just as good.