Submitted By Simon Hardy Butler, November 4, 2016-1:38 pm
Sidestreets are made for upscale restaurants. They’re generally quiet, innocuous, designed to avoid the hoi polloi’s collective eye as much as cater to the urbane high rollers so often coveted by the would-be eatery jet set. So a less-well-traveled thoroughfare may be a desirable commodity for those seeking a discreet presence in the mad, manic city. Some hope to be known only to people they want to know. You can’t cultivate a brand by bringing in just anyone.
Almayass, happily, is a lot more welcoming than that, and to its credit, the restaurant doesn’t convey this kind of sentiment. But at first glance, it might seem like another high-end spot trying to be as secluded as possible among the crowds and cacophony of Gotham; in fact, it’s so inconspicuous that you might even pass it by before observing it’s there—clear glass windows set at the bottom of a handsome stone building on 21st Street that could be anywhere on Manhattan’s East Side hardly broadcast the vitality within. Once you enter, however, you notice the warmth: a curious, ceiling-high installation of multicolored shards linked via metallic chains catches your eye on the right; beyond, an expansive, elegant dining room festooned with sturdy brown chairs and white tablecloths, plus a jarring centerpiece showcasing what appears to be tall-growing flowers sculpted from blue glass, suggest a mix of artistry and hominess not always found in the area. You might end up sitting near a large, vibrant painting that features a host of stylized human figures in different poses; a small tree opposite you provides the requisite greenery under solid-looking chandeliers. There’s rusticity and poshness in play at the same time. It might be a little confused, yet it’s also rather inviting.
Your affable, erudite server provides a collection of heavy mahogany menus, one of which is the wine list. It’s compact, offering a selection of international vintages, including some Lebanese and Armenian varieties, yet what draws your attention right away is the presence of arak, a powerful spirit featuring an aromatic anise flavor. It comes to you mixed with water, peppered with cubes of ice, and it packs a punch. While sipping it, you nosh on silky but underseasoned hummus and slices of bland pita bread that are delivered to the table—the pita, you are told, are not made in-house, and that’s a bit disappointing. Thankfully, there are six different iterations of hummus on the menu; you pick the one featuring shrimp, and the savory sautéed crustaceans, situated atop the smooth chickpea puree, mingle well with the delicate mash. But not everything offers that success, and the oversalted, rough-edged chicken liver appetizer, brought to you in a small dish that is filled with dark, vinegary gravy, is proof of that. The empanada-like Bereg, palm-size turnovers filled with soft white cheese, are much better as starters, as is the Soujouk Almayass, small pieces of bread topped with delicate bits of sausage and squishy, itty-bitty fried quail eggs. Too bad the Mantee, tiny open-face dumplings filled with meat, are hard and monotonous; supplied in yet another minuscule dish, they lead you to wonder if receptacles of such proportions are the only conveyances for the vittles that the kitchen can dispatch. Good thing the mains are featured more generously, though the quantity of some of the provisions may not negate the issues surrounding them.
Case in point: The $68 mixed grill arrives on a large platter bedecked with feisty arugula leaves and laden with meats: Kafta, strongly flavored seasoned minced beef logs; spicy, overcooked broiled chicken; tender filet mignon; and petite, nicely cooked but rather mundane lamb chops. For the price, you expect something extraordinary, mouthwatering—instead, you get a très cher platter of protein that smacks of inelegance and loses its interest value fast. Indeed, the cost of the dishes in general are high at Almayass, and you might be daunted by the end of the meal to try the dessert, given the prospect of adding an additional 10-spot to your bill. Nevertheless, you try the Ossmalieh Almayass, an immense, cube-shaped hunk of sweet that features feathery strands of sugar complementing a rich mix of cream and vermicelli; pouring the clear syrup that comes with it over the concoction creates an almost overwhelming effect. To counter it, you gulp down some Armenian coffee: pleasantly bitter, with an appealing, grainy sediment at the bottom.
Now you’re done. The room fills up, becomes quite loud—and cramped, as your chair may be only be separated by a hand’s width from the diner next to you. On your way out, you check the bar that’s situated slightly off the main dining room: It’s cool, slick, and, like most of the plates of food you sampled, relatively small. Everyone seems to know each other here; many diners appear to be regulars, and despite the pizzazz of the ambiance, some folks don’t come dressed up. Perhaps that’s as it should be. You catch a last glance at the multicolored installation near the entrance while walking to the door. Soothing, like a waterfall … or a sidestreet in a congested metropolis.
Again: This is how it should be. Arak on your brain, you hail a cab and contemplate the next time you’ll try that sultry spirit.
It might not be too long.