Armenia

Erebuni, Bayswater, 36 – 37 Lancaster Gate, W2 3NA.

Visited Friday 2 September 2011

I was dreading going to Erebuni, a small Armenian restaurant in Bayswater, having read Alex Renton’s article in the Times entitled ‘Is this the worst dish in the world?’ which described Armenia’s national delicacy – Khash.

The tale of Khash’s rise to status as a dish of delicacy is dubious. Once upon a time (so the story goes) an Armenian king noticed that his servant’s children were healthier than his own sickly offspring and so inquired as to their diet. The servant explained that when cows were slaughtered the rich took all the meat and the poor were given what was left – the feet. From this they made a soup of cows hooves and bovine brain boiled for 32 hours. So the king ordered that this be served to him and his children and so Khash became the dish of the rich.

It was therefore, with trepidation that I would approach any Armenian restaurant. I was even more anxious when I looked at the website which declared ‘we are waiting for you to join us for Euro 2012 qualifier Republic of Ireland vs. Armenia’ followed by ‘Live music every Friday and Saturday night’. Visions of shouting football fans combined with loud rock/folk music passed through my head. Let’s be honest, I couldn’t be prepared for worse.

My suspicions seemed about to be proven right as we entered the lobby of a fairly seedy Fawlty Towers-esque hotel and were pointed down a small tiled corridor to a service lift which creaked and strained down to the basement level, landed with a jolt and took an ominous minute before finally opening. Down another small corridor lined with lace curtains we entered the restaurant itself. Reminiscent of breakfast rooms in the hotels of continental Europe it is a fairly small pair of rooms with a recessed bar and decked out with authentic Armenian merchanise, from bright oil paintings to woven tapestry panels. With dark wood tables and red hangings  it is recognisably the set of the film Eastern Promises starring Viggo Mortenson. We’d managed to establish from the photographs on the website of the cast and crew with the restaurant owner, that Erebuni had been used in the making of Eastern Promises but were surprised how much smaller the space was than in the film. When we mentioned this to the owner he merely waved his hand around and said, ‘they use computers’.

The restaurant seems to be a family affair, with the father serving drinks behind the bar, spending most of the night chatting to family and friends who arrive throughout the evening, the daughter waitressing and the son, or possibly nephew, providing the live music. This is perhaps the time to mention the live music. Despite my scepticism this was brilliant and made the evening. The setup was small, with an electronic keyboard, laptop, microphone and an amazing electronic violin and the music a mixture of traditional Armenian folk with Armenian mainstream.

The food came not only as a surprise but as a real revelation. All three starters, mains and desserts were superb. I had the Emenbajady as a starter which was a melt-in-your-mouth dish of spiced aubergines, peppers and onion with a tomato sauce. Steve had Basturma, thinly sliced dried beef coated in curried spices which was like nothing I’ve ever tasted before and will definitely be going back to taste again and the Writer took Sekhtorats, a spicy aubergine dish similar to babaganoush.

The mains exceeded the high standard set by the starters. The writer ordered the traditional Dolma-Echmiadzin, vine leaves stuffed with spiced mince lamb and rice with a garlic and yoghurt dip. Steve had the centre piece of rainbow trout, delicately flavoured with an Armenian sauce and I went for the vegetarian dish Hailasan, described as ‘one of the most delicious Armenian vegetarian dishes’, it was a blend of potatoes, red peppers, onions, green beans, courgettes, tomatoes and fresh herbs poached in tomato sauce on a bed of rice. The vegetables and style of cooking is very similar to mediterranean cuisine but the spicing is closer to middle eastern making everything we ate deliciously new and different.

Desserts sounded distinctly unexciting ‘Armenian chocolate cake’ being one of them. However, keen to do the whole experience justice we ordered and were pleased we had when a series of light and delicate patisserie style cakes appeared. The Armenian honey and walnut cake comes highly recommended. We followed this with Armenian coffee, a thick bitter espresso similar to Turkish coffee. You drink half way down the cup before finding the bottom full of thick gritty liquid which quickly solidifies when it meets the air. Not wanting to leave we decided to sample the Armenian cognac, golden and potent it’s worth parting with an extra £5. Full and swaying, lulled by the Armenian folk music, we were greeted by the restaurants owner with the Armenian version of ‘paying-the-bill-mints’ – vodka shots. Harsh Armenian vodka for the men, and flavoured vodka for the ladies. Warm hospitality, great atmosphere, live music, divine food.

Armenia. The best restaurant of the world so far. So take that Alex Renton. ~ S

 

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