by Sam Gugino
Fimy Ishkhanian named her restaurant in Northern Liberties after the pit of a fruit commonly used in Armenian cooking because it figures prominently in the lyrics of a popular Armenian song. Located at the end of a promenade of restaurants called Liberty Walk in the Northern Liberties section of Phioladelphia, this small, casual eatery has about as many seats inside as outside (around 30) because warm weather brings out throngs who want to dine alfresco.
Inside, expansive windows and a large mirror give the impression of a dining area larger than it really is. Tables are varnished pine and matched with reasonably comfortable wooden chairs and wide plank floors. The walls are decorated with intriguing, colorful photos of Philly neighborhoods by Ben Wong.
The menu contains many familiar Middle Eastern dishes – some with Armenian variations – as well as Armenian specialties. A good way to start is a trio of dips from six available and crisps of pita bread. The best of the three I tried was muhamara, a coarse puree of roasted sweet red peppers and walnuts that had a smoky flavor, gentle crunch and just enough heat to get your attention. Eggplant salsa is a Western take on babaganoush that contains chunks in lieu of pureed grilled eggplant along with tomatoes, onions and fresh herbs. Jajukh is essentially the Greek tzatziki, a tart yogurt and cucumber dip with fresh mint. Refreshing but a bit bland.
Among the hot appetizers, Armenian pizza (lahmajoun) is more like soft taco that is spread with an earthy mix of pureed vegetables and beef, then folded. Mujaddara is a pilaf of lentils, caramelized onions, and bulgur instead of the rice. A hearty satisfying dish with a pleasant sweetness from those onions.
If you and a partner have what my wife and I had above, a shared entree of a kebab tasting platter should be enough if you want dessert, or not. (See below). Choose three proteins like tender chunks of beef or succulent lamb or one of the tastiest versions of falafel I’ve ever eaten; beautifully seasoned without a hint of grease. All come with excellent rice, a choice of the dips, and salads, like fattoush, a bread salad made from toasted or fried pieces of pita mixed with greens and vegetables, such as radishes and tomatoes. It was fine, though I would have liked more pita.
Desserts are mostly disappointing. The best of the group was an apricot bar with tender pastry, though it still needed a dollop of something sweet like yogurt or ice cream. Rice pudding was drowned in rose water. Barley-based Armenian Christmas pudding with dried fruits, almonds and cinnamon was insipid. For the sugar averse, homemade baklava may be to your liking, though I found it insufficiently sweet and too dry.
Our server was friendly and remarkably efficient, considering he was the only waiter handling tables inside and out. But, please, lose the nose ring, will ya?
Kudos for the refreshing lemon-cucumber water. But plastic cups? Even for wine? Wine lovers be forewarned.
Apricot Stone, 1040 N. American Street, Philadelphia, 267-606-6596, apricotstonephilly.com, Tuesday- Saturday: 11 am-10 pm; Sunday brunch: 10 am -4 pm. Reservations and credit cards accepted. Appetizers and salads, $2.50-$8. Sandwiches and entrees, $6-$16.
Although Armenia is one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world, good luck with finding any in Pennsylvania. Oh, there are several listed on the PLCB website. But all are special liquor order (SLO), which means they are not carried in stores. This leaves you with wines from other Middle Eastern countries, especially Israel, but also Lebanon. Even then pickin’s are slim with one Israeli producer, Recanati, dominant.
Recanati Yasmin White 2014 (Code: 49674;$11.99) is a fresh and fruity blend of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc that nicely navigates the heavily vegetable appetizer offerings. Massaya Blanc 2013 (Code: 80267; $12.99) is another white blend, this time from Lebanon. It features clairette, an old- fashioned French varietal one rarely sees on its own, and obeidi (aka öbediah), varietal native to the Bekaa Valley. While it has some decent spice and floral notes, it wasn’t as impressive as the Recanati.
Recanati Diamond Series Merlot 2013 (Code: 73326; $13.99) is really a blend with cabernet sauvignon that is ripe, smoky, and mellow. Recanati Diamond Series Shiraz 2014 (Code: 73327; $13.99) was absolutely delicious. Ripe and lush, it was great to drink on its own or with a variety of meats and seasonings.