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Armenian adventures

by Jennifer Chater at 07/03/2012 20:19

Gayane’s

1/4 2nd Smolensky Per.,             (499) 795 1160      , 741 9192, m. Smolenskaya, www.gayanes.ru
Open daily 11 am-midnight

There are some things in life that are worth trying once, and khash is one of them. A broth of boiled cow’s feet and offal, it’s revered in the Caucasus and reputed to have magical powers.

I’m no practitioner of nose-totail gastronomy – I can appreciate the ethical reasons for using the whole animal if you’re going to eat any meat at all, but the mind can’t overcome the gut’s revulsion. Khash has always been a big turnoff and I could never understand why anyone would want to eat it. Until I went to Gayane’s.

Armenian restaurateur Gayane Breiova opened this restaurant in February in place of her Italian eatery La Scaletta, next door to her café Na Lestnitse. It’s cozier and more inviting than the city’s other classy Armenian restaurants, and it was in this atmosphere of comfort that we decided to forgo safe old favorites like dolma and shashlyks, and try some of the more exotic things on the menu. Such as khash.

There are so many delicioussounding dishes that it’s difficult to choose. For starters, it had to be aveluk, or wood sorrel, a plant that grows in the mountains of Armenia and is a traditional part of the cuisine. At Gayane’s the dark greeny-brown herb is mixed with chopped walnuts and pomegranate, making a nice spread on the fresh, fine lavash bread. The subtle, earthy flavor wouldn’t be to everybody’s taste, but we found it to be both unusual and delicious.

Equally scrumptious was the pizza-like lamadzho topped with minced beef and tomato, and the zhingalov khats, a Karabakh snack of paper-thin dough encasing a mixture of cilantro, dill, green onion, sorrel and spinach, served toasty-hot with yogurt-like matsun on the side – simple but sublime.

Three tasty snacks: lamadzho, lavash and zhingalov khats

© Photo / The Moscow News / Nathan Toohey

Three tasty snacks: lamadzho, lavash and zhingalov khats

Soon it was time for the course we’d been nervously waiting for: the soup. Khash is meant to be consumed by men in the morning and with vodka; I wasn’t ticking any of those boxes, but the menu’s description made me wonder what I’d been missing out on:

“The legendary hero-soup khash is one of the most ancient Armenian dishes. … Khash is believed to have an enormous number of wondrous qualities, the most important of which is the so-called soberingup effect. It’s said that Armenian khash is so good that even a totally drunk person will become sober, healthy and jolly after a plate of this soup. ‘Wonder-khash’ is very nutritious, and is considered a balsam for the joints and bones.”

Who could resist a description like that? I fully believed I was going to enjoy it. Then it arrived at the table – an odorous bowlful of light brown, gelatinous liquid, bathing an enormous, fat-sheathed bone and some other gnarly lumps of fatty flesh. I took a tentative sip: bland but somehow repulsive. After tossing in all the accompanying garlic oil, more than a pinch of salt, and lashings of crispy lavash, I managed to choke down a fair chunk of this pungent concoction between bites of radish, thrilled by the adventure but revolted at the same time, and envying my dining companion with his comforting bowl of “putuk” mutton and chickpea soup.

We had a nice bottle of Armenian wine to wash it down – a dry red from Areni, the ancient vinegrowing area where archaeologists recently found the earliest known winery, more than 6,000 years old. For something stronger, the menu offers brandies and artsakh, or Armenian vodka, among other tipples.

After the khash, my exotic main course was a walk in the park. Ishli kyufta is a ball of minced beef and bulgur on the outside, encasing a mixture of minced beef and crushed walnuts on the inside – imagine the Ferrero Rocher of meatballs, a perfect play of taste and texture.

The Karmrakhayt high-altitude river trout turned out to be a small and very bony fish, not recommended for those who can’t stand picking tiny pins out of every mouthful. Still, it had a lovely, delicate flavor and tasted as fresh as can be, which perhaps goes some way to justifying the price.

Two glasses of wine later, the khash experience continued to haunt me (“healthy and jolly”? I should’ve had some artsakh), but don’t take that as a criticism of the restaurant. The food at Gayane’s is superb and I recommend the place to anyone wanting a sophisticated Armenian meal. Khash is what it is – not for the faint-hearted.

 

Schyot, please!*


Two years after opening La Scaletta, Gayane Breiova turned the Italian restaurant’s two-storey space into a project of the heart: an Armenian restaurant. Gayane’s has a Caucasian menu ripe with Armenia’s specialties and a lot of soul.

PHOTO COURTESY OF GAYANE’S / TEXT POLINA PUSHKINA

From good to better is the most welcome form of progress. A happy transformation took

place at 2-y Smolensky Per. where the Italian eatery La Scaletta morphed into Gayane’s, a cafe named after its charismatic owner Gayane Breiova, and serving homemade Caucasian fare with Armenian flare.

If you have been to the place before, there are hardly any visible signs of remont — a few colorful ethnic prints successfully erase the trattoria vibe. The bottom floor with its open kitchen where you can watch Gayane’s cousin and the restaurant’s chef Tamara Garanyan at work, boasts bright tablecloths. While I don’t mind these, the first floor’s prints depicting modern takes on famous Armenian legends seem unnecessary and out of style. On the other hand, the Afiyan family tree (Breiova’s maiden name is Afiyan), which begins in 1726 and occupyies the wall by the stairs, is a stylistically appropriate, smart find.

The menu is packed with national specialities with unpronounceable names. The names are helpful in their own way — just stick to them for the best experience at Gayane’s. Team element’s meal started with kamats matsun (230 rubles), a kind of soft cheese made from sour milk product matsoni. The starter transforms six-percent cow milk into something that tastes like a rich, thick sour cream. Matsun makes a great combination with the tandoori baked puffy bread matnakashi (50 rubles). Aveluk, another cold appetizer served on a brown clay plate, was less impressive. The dish made of sorrel (260 rubles) promised the slightly sour notes of its main ingredient supported with the freshness of garlic. In reality the aveluk tasted like cooked grass with no character. The next serving, zhingalov khats, rehabilitated both sorrel and the Caucasian way of using herbs. The 320-ruble thin lepyoshka is stuffed with chopped greens. According to the chef, they use nine types of herbs to make this one. The result, which features a rainbow of taste and is best consumed with fresh matsoni, is a must try. The same is true of the sorrel soup (260 rubles) with lentils and beans. The hot dish is made extra special with chunks of dried plums, which build a beautiful combination with the rest of the ingredients.

While the first part of our meal left us with mixed feelings, the mains left no space for doubt. Lamb ribs chopped into small chunks (290 rubles) are brilliant both in terms of presentation and taste. Forget about the fork, and dig in with you hands — the tender meat topped with sea salt is a great snack and convenient for sharing. Liver and kidney stuffed sausage grilled on a skewer (220 rubles) is a find for adventurous eaters. The dish is bursting with flavour though it lacks a bit of juiciness, which can be compensated by ordering a sauce. Khorovats or baked vegetables (250 rubles) is the way to go for a side. Made of coal roasted eggplants, peppers and tomatoes without oil, the side combines best of Georgian adzhapsandali and Arabian babaganush: succulent veggies with smoky taste.

Before sharing our dessert experience, few words on drinks: The menu includes Armenian wine, beer and vodka, and inspiring Ararat cognac based cocktails (the 300-ruble After Love is recommended). Gayane’s cake (180 rubles) and the Armenian take on ptichye moloko (250 rubles) were our choices from the sweet section. The first one is a solid take on a chocolate cake with white mousse filling. The second is trickier: Based on the traditional Armenian recipe, the cake has nothing to do with Moscow’s understanding of ptichye moloko (vanilla souffle with crispy chocolate). The good news is that it is different in the most welcoming way. Calling the dessert a lowsugar honey cake is the most accurate way to describe it. No doubt Gayane’s needs to polish few things, but with its prices, and a courtyard patio on the way, I will happily incorporate it in my culinary route.