BY TAMAR KEVONIAN
The start of any new venture requires lots of hard work, attention to detail, determination and, most of all, research. This is exactly what Alex has been going through in preparation to opening his restaurant next month in Beverly Hills. Based on the cuisine of the Levant which is made up of countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean Sea, he plans to make his menu a modern interpretation of well known flavors and textures.
“Nothing like this exists in the area,” he says referring not just to the combination of the cuisines, but also of the restaurant concept itself – modern and chic yet casual, partway between a sit down restaurant and a fast food joint.
After a year of preparation, it was time for hands on research to fine tune the final items for his menu. Alex planned a whirlwind trip to the countries whose cuisines he and his chef, Matt would rely on heavily: Lebanon, Turkey and Greece.
“I was looking forward to Beirut because I’d heard so much about it being the Paris of the Middle East,” he says. “It ain’t no Paris,” he says with a disappointed shake of his head. The ravages of war over the last 30 years have left their indelible mark on the city even though its pre-war reputation still lives on. “I ended up liking parts of the city I didn’t expect to like, for example Bourj Hammoud,” he says referring to the neighborhood well known for its purely Armenian population.
“We arrived into Beirut very late at night,” he begins, “and immediately were taken to a late night shawerma place.” He was surprised by the late night crowds but he was mostly surprised by the portions of the sandwiches that house the chips of meat, tomatoes and sauce. “They didn’t serve the 3” rolled sandwiches like they do here. The portions were manageable.”
After he his brief two day visit where every meal was eaten in the name of research, Alex and Chef Matt made their way to Istanbul.
“It felt strange going there,” Alex says referring to the feelings of trepidation most Armenians feel when visiting Turkey, the land where so many of our ancestors experienced horrors beyond normal imagination. Even though Alex and his family hail from Iran, the feelings are deeply entrenched in the psyche of all Armenians. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
“I don’t get excited about things,” he says, “it’s just my personality. But I was very excited in Istanbul.” The structure of the city, the sophistication of its population, the kindness and generosity of the people really amazed Alex. “They were so nice and went out of their way to be helpful.” At first he thought it was because of his Armenian heritage that those he met were so accommodating. “Like they were trying to overcompensate because I was Armenian,” but soon discovered that this was not the case.
Through an old high school friend from his boarding school days in London, Alex was referred to a well known Turkish food critic who quickly sent him a list of recommended restaurants. First stop was one of the best seafood restaurants in the city. When the chef/owner discovered the purpose of their trip, he quickly invited the two visiting Americans into the kitchen and prepared a special meal. “Fish testicles,” he says. “They were absolutely delicious but who knew fish had testicles?”
“He was so excited,” Alex says of the Turkish host, “he kept telling me how his best friend was Armenian and lived in the States and next thing I know he’s calling his friend and making me talk to him.” The absurdity of the situation did not go unnoticed. “In truth, it was the best seafood we’d had.”
The next night found Chef Matt and Alex in a more traditional, but equally renowned restaurant. At the other end of the room, a group of Japanese businessmen flanked a large, rotund Turkish man who was clearly the owner of the establishment. “He had a large handlebar mustache,” he says with a chuckle and twirls an imaginary on himself. Images of Ottoman pashas quickly jump to mind. “I’d never seen one before.”
“The food was good but what was more interesting was the conversation I overheard.” It seems the mustachioed owner had a large and bellowing voice and was using it to explain Turkish cuisine to his Japanese visitors. “I heard him explain how Turkish cuisine is based on Armenian cuisine since it really came into being because of all the Armenians who were taken in to work in the kitchens of Turkish households after the Genocide.” Alex pauses to allow time for the impact of the words to sink in: an admission by a Turkish restaurateur of the true origins of the national cuisine. “What really shocked me though was hearing a Turk use the ‘G’ word,” he says, still surprised at the memory after so many months of hearing it. “I remember having heated discussions with my Turkish friends in high school who simply didn’t believe the Genocide had occurred. They had never been taught any of it.”
From Turkey, Alex and Chef Matt made their way to Greece. “We had the best meal and the worst meal in Athens,” he says describing the delicately seasoned potatoes they were served in one restaurant and the absolutely bland fare of the other.
Unfortunately they didn’t have time for further exploration but Alex wishes they did just so they could have visited the country sides of all the cities on their itinerary. That’s were he believes he would find the essence of the regions cuisines; eating the everyday meals of the regular villagers. But that will have to wait until the next round. “I may not go to Beirut or Athens again, but I’ll definitely go back to Istanbul,” he says clearly impressed with the multiple layers of the city of which he saw only brief glimpses; and possibly exploring more deeply the parts of the country more closely related to his heritage and discovering the true roots of their cuisine.