These days there are no shortages of tapa bars in the city and New Yorkers are sold on the idea of passing around the small plates and enjoying a night out. So if you're one of the many obsessed with this family style concept, but your taste buds are craving new and exotic flavors, Almayass Restaurant, specializing in Armenian and Lebanese cuisine, can be a welcoming change.
Almayass is tucked away on East 21st Street in Manhattan and unless you look very carefully chances are you'll walk right by it. It's owned and operated by the Alexandrians, an Armenian family from Lebanon. The flagship restaurant opened in Beirut in 1996, with locations in Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and Riyadh following. In 2012 they took a chance on New York City and considering most of the Armenian restaurants closed up shop years ago and moved out to California, it's one of the few places in the city offering Armenian cuisine.
When I first heard about Almayass and how it attracted a family crowd I was expecting a more down to earth mom and pop kind of spot. You know, kids running around the restaurant, family pictures on the walls, the smell of shish kebab permeating the air, and loud Armenian families where everyone is talking but nobody is really listening. Sort of how I remember growing up when us cousins, aunts, and uncles converged on my grandfather's farm to enjoy the Sunday meal together. Quite the contrary, I was greeted by a smartly dressed host, tasteful and eclectic artwork lined the walls, and instead of loud voices and children running under tables, soft French and Middle Eastern music played in the background of what was obviously an elegant and upscale establishment.
So with some disappointment and my childhood memories tucked away, I told myself I was here for the food. First out, a mix of calamata olives served with olive oil and sesame seeds, a basket of freshly baked pita bread, and labneh, a soft and tangy Middle Eastern cheese made from yogurt. I grabbed some olives, spread my cheese on the warm fresh bread, dunked my bread into the oil and enjoyed the flavors that filled my mouth. Ok, so things were looking up.
Next out a fattoush salad with a mix of mint, purslane, cucumbers, radishes, sumac, parsley, lemon and olive oil topped with salty fried pita chips. The combination of herbs and spices gave it an exotic taste, but because the greens were wilted from too much vinaigrette I was sadly disappointed. Thank goodness for the crunch of the pita chips. I could have eaten a bowl full of them. They were delicious!
I opted for two small plates following the salad, mouhammara and soujuk. Mouhammara is a spicy Lebanese spread, but at Almayass it's made the Armenian way with crushed walnuts, red pepper, pomegranate, and molasses served with pita bread. Soujuk is a very spicy Armenian beef sausage sautéed with fresh tomatoes. Overall, I enjoyed the appetizers, but I wasn't in love. I told myself that if the entree didn't bring back fond memories of church picnics and Armenian dancing I probably wouldn't return.
Almayass has two entrée choices on the menu, lamb chops and kebobs, although there are eight variations of kebobs. I ordered the kafta kebob, charbroiled ground beef with tomatoes and green peppers. Awaiting the aroma of just grilled beef in the air I crossed my fingers and hoped for a home run on this one. I wasn't disappointed. It was juicy, seasoned perfectly, and charred nicely on the outside with an inside cooked to a perfect medium rare. Also, throughout the meal diners are served an anise flavored Middle Eastern liqueur called Arak. Its coolness really cuts the heat of some of the spicier dishes. Another beverage worth trying is the tan, a yogurt based drink served with mint. But for me, I topped off the meal with a strong Armenian coffee.
Almayass Restaurant had some definite hits with a couple of disappointing misses. Considering it's one of the few Armenian restaurants left in the city, I'd definitely come back.