Ararat Middle East Restaurant

Attitude aside, this contemporary Xanadu is a feast for the imagination

Ararat Middle East Restaurant

111 E. North Loop, 419-1692

Monday, 6-10pm; Tuesday-Sunday, 5-10pm

On a recent trip to Ararat I was shocked when the staff there actually refused to seat us. It was a busy Saturday night. I had made an admittedly cheeky, yet ultimately harmless, remark about the wait, and the angry server, after making a pretext of finding a table, coolly informed me that she had no space for us. The next night we made a reservation, which seems to be how the restaurant's new owners – three former Ararat waitpeople – prefer to manage the lively business at this ever-popular yet tiny enclave. Over the years, this restaurant has consistently been a favorite among Austin's trendy set. From the pierced and dreadlocked waitstaff to the well-heeled metrosexual patrons, Ararat can boast one of the coolest crowds in the city. Perhaps it should be no surprise that this coolness comes with plenty of attitude.

Nine years ago, Ararat's original owner had the vision to transform an ugly cinderblock space into a delightful Xanadu offering Turkish-, Armenian-, and Persian-inspired dishes. He draped kilim carpets over the walls, painted the exposed wood and concrete in deep-hued colors, set low wooden tables in the corners, applied warm lighting, and played moody world-beat music to create a space with genuine atmosphere. Breaking out of the gyro-falafel mold, Ararat offered sit-down dinners and an ambience evoking an Orient situated somewhere between a yurt and a Hollywood film set.

The cuisine at Ararat seems similarly imagined. Those who come searching for the bastermas (cured meat) or the slow-cooked meat stews so definitive of the region for which the restaurant is named will no doubt meet some disappointment. Instead, Ararat's small menu skips across the map in a postmodern jaunt through the Middle East and Caucasus. At Ararat, Egyptian salads meet Turkish stuffed grape leaves and Persian-style stews. Saffron-colored basmati rice, tahini sauces, and pomegranate reductions have authentic flavor, but are put together in unlikely pairings not found in traditional recipes.

Fundamentally, the food is good at Ararat, even if it does not fall neatly within a single culinary tradition. The sizzling lamb is a delicious example of this manufactured genre. Chunks of grilled lamb are set atop flatbread spread with a harissa-like chile paste and tzatziki. Lovely piles of saffron rice and tomato infused bulgar offset it. Ararat's salmon – a fish unknown to the waters of the Middle East – is served atop a grape leaf, then bathed in a turmeric tahini sauce and drizzled with a pomegranate concentrate that accents the fish delightfully. I found myself licking the plate clean of Ararat's atypical turmeric-tinged hummus, and have flat out fallen in love with the kitchen's iconoclastic minted baba ghanoush. I was disappointed, however, by Ararat's lamb stew, which contains none of the stewed meat the menu advertised, but features lamb that has been grilled first then put into the stew at the last minute. This rendered the meat tough, and the whole dish lacked in the complex, savory flavor typical of slow-cooked foods.

Since taking over the restaurant in late spring, Ararat's new owners have essentially kept the original menu and decor intact. However, they have begun to tinker. After years of trying to pack customers into the cramped interior space, they finally opened a backyard patio with charm equal to the quirky makeshift dining room. Ararat is open on Monday nights with a vegetarian-only menu. And the restaurant now has belly dancers every night, instead of the weekend-only schedule set by the previous owner. Attitude aside, once the servers decide to open the gates of this contemporary Xanadu, a meal at Ararat is a fun way to disappear into an exotic imaginary world. Ararat is busy just about every night of the week, so make a reservation and don't forget to BYOB: This restaurant does not have an alcohol license.

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