Discovering a lost cuisine

Manti at Mayrig restaurant in Beirut. (Arab News)
Updated 26 September 2018

Discovering a lost cuisine

  • Armenian restaurant Mayrig is tucked away in the outskirts of Gemmayze, Beirut
  • Armenian cuisine has been described as a lost cuisine, but Mayrig proves otherwise

BEIRUT: Tucked away in the outskirts of Gemmayze, Armenian restaurant Mayrig might have been difficult to spot if not for the busy valet service. The setting, an old stone house with a garden-style walk-through, lined with plants of all sorts, indicates an effort to create a cozy, home-like atmosphere in a bustling location.
This ambience is reflected inside and out. The interior is designed like any traditional Levantine home, with oriental carpets, patterned-tile floors and stone-wall interiors. Black-and-white portraits of the owner’s ancestors line the walls, creating a warm and welcoming experience of a kind you might expect at a grandmother’s home. Our host, George, played a major part in making us feel welcome and at home with a few jokes and words of wisdom between every course.
We were sampling a degustation menu, which began with a huge selection of salads and appetizers. One of the most popular was the famous eetch, a tangy and spicy salad made with cooked bulgur and tomato paste, lightly topped with parsley. It is similar in some ways to the Lebanese tabbouleh, yet very different in taste and consistency. 
Perhaps the overall favorite appetizer was the printzov keufteh, a rice-crusted kebbe in which the sweet starchiness of the crispy rice shell blends beautifully with the savory meat-and-pine nut filling.
The appetizers ended with a selection of traditional Armenian cheese pies called sou beureg. Three flavors were offered, listed in our order of preference — thyme, sujuk and basterma. Sujuk and basterma are traditional, spicy, air-cured Armenian sausages that became popular in Lebanon after Armenians settled in the country. Thyme and cheese always pair well, but the sujuk pie was overwhelming thanks to its smoky saltiness and the basterma completely overpowered the cheese with its powerful, gamy flavor.
We were already starting to feel full as the main courses began to arrive. First to be served was the fishnah kebab, a grilled-beef kebab topped with a wild sour cherry sauce. This was the only real let down of the meal, as the kebab was dry and lacked seasoning. However, the cherry sauce was the perfect balance between sweet and sour.
This recipe was brought to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, by an influx of Armenian refugees returning to their homeland after the civil war began in Syria. As such it is a dish that perfectly embodies what Armenian food has become — an ever-changing food culture.
Next on the main course menu was the unforgettable manti. Crisp-on-the-outside minced-meat dumplings were doused in a spicy tomato sauce, allowing them to soften, then topped with yogurt and a dash of sumac to balance out the heat. This is definitely a crowd-pleaser at Mayrig and they even offer a vegetarian version made with spinach.
Finally, we came to the dessert menu, beginning with the rose loukoum ice cream, a light and airy sherbet with a fun chew due to the inclusion of mastic — a plant resin. Another must-try is the semi-dried apricot stuffed with ashta, a Lebanese milk pudding. The desserts will bring you back to Mayrig, if nothing else does.
Mayrig — which means “mother” in Armenian — pays tribute to all the Armenian women through the ages who, despite war and other hardships, were able to ensure that the traditional flavors and recipes of their ancestors endured.
Armenian cuisine has been described as a lost cuisine. However, Mayrig proves otherwise as it gathers together varieties from across the regions and generations — and now it is coming full circle by returning to its homeland, with the opening of a new restaurant in Yerevan.

OPA: Enjoy a traditional Greek experience in Dubai

OPA, a Greek restaurant in the Fairmont hotel Dubai. (Supplied)
Updated 19 February 2019

OPA: Enjoy a traditional Greek experience in Dubai

  • OPA offers a range of traditional Greek dishes and treats
  • Take a step into Greece with OPA's lavish decor

DUBAI: Upon entering Dubai’s latest Greek restaurant OPA at the Fairmont Hotel, diners are transported from the concrete jungle to a lavish, plant-filled lobby with a tree growing right in the center of the room, before moving into the dining area that’s been made to look like a traditional Greek establishment, with white-painted walls and light blue linings.

OPA offers a range of traditional Greek dishes and treats, many of which are similar to those found in most Mediterranean cuisines, but with a fancier touch.
Before we even sat down at our round, saloon-style couched table, loud (like, loud!) Greek music burst from the speakers as the waiters, dressed in chiton and peplos — traditional Greek clothing — gathered around and began dancing across the restaurant, inviting guests to join the fun and be a part of the unique experience. White, clay plates were passed to every table and diners were encouraged to smash them on the floor. More people were willing to get involved in the latter. Who knew the dining experience would come with an anger-management class?
First up was a trifecta of spicy feta, tzatziki and tarama dips coupled with seasoned and toasted triangular pita bread. While the tarama dip was fishier than others I’ve tasted, the spicy feta and tzatziki dips were lick-the-bowl-clean good. After came a chunky and refreshing Greek salad (because why not) and a black truffle tuna tartare that hit the spot both taste-wise and texturally, as the velvety softness of the raw fish worked well with the crispy koulouri.

The hot appetizers rolled in later — grilled octopus, prawns saganaki, and grilled Cypriot halloumi. While the grilled octopus offered little to differentiate it from other restaurant offerings, the saganaki offered a twist to the traditional flaming saganaki, with its feta cheese and roasted peppers-infused spicy tomato sauce. The halloumi was on another level — the sweetness of the grilled fig and grape dressing went hand in hand with the saltiness of the cheese, making it a pleasant surprise to the taste buds.
The mains began with three lamb chops served with pickled cucumbers and tzatziki, a hearty and rich dish that will have you sucking at the bone just to get more of the lamb flavor. Next up was the lobster orzo “risotto” (according to the menu), a grilled half-lobster marinated with seaweed butter laying on a bed of orzo mixed with tomato sauce. While the dish sounded extravagantly rich, it was actually rather flat — the flavors never really reached their full potential: the sauce was a tad bland and the lobster-to-orzo ratio leaned heavily on the orzo.

For dessert, we were served the OPA baklava sundae, a large crispy filo cup stuffed with pistachio cream, caramel and Greek yoghurt ice-cream, pieces of baklava and topped with crumbled pistachios and caramel sauce. It resembled a massive Turkish cupcake, and was enough for a table of four hungry diners. If you’re skilled enough to dig through from the top to the bottom and manage to balance all its components without having one fall, then you’re in for an exciting mouthful.

All in all, OPA is well worth a visit. Whether you’re in a group celebrating a birthday, a couple going out on a date or even going solo to reward yourself for surviving yet another hectic work week, take a step into Greece and away from Dubai’s tall towers and traffic-filled roads.