Almayass NYC

What better way to celebrate the introduction of DiningOut New Jersey’s new “Across the River” section than by profiling a Manhattan restaurant known for creating the kind of exotic Armenian culinary experience described in our inaugural “Food Culture” section? Almayass {21st Street between Broadway and Park Avenue South; 212.473.3100} infuses authentic Armenian food and flavors into traditional Lebanese dishes. The restaurant has been getting plenty of attention—and most recently, was named the “Best Restaurant in The Flatiron/Union Square” by The Village Voice.

Shant and Rita Alexandrian opened the first Almayass in Beirut in 1996. Their New York City location, which opened in the spring of 2014, is their only United States outpost so far. The family, part of a group of exiled Armenians, had lived in Lebanon for three generations when they introduced their first Almayass concept, blending the flavors of both their native and adopted homelands.

The Alexandrians’ original restaurant was so crowd-pleasing that franchises have popped up in several locations throughout the Middle East. The New York Almayass is directly run by the founders, explains general manager Mario Arekalian, who can attest to this fact—Shant and Rita are his in-laws. Arakelian, whose own background includes a decade of working at the Four Seasons, explains that the success of their concept in the Middle East over the last two decades spurred the family to branch out to a new continent and open up shop in New York City.

Almayass’ Neighborhood

In talking about selecting the perfect neighborhood for their American outpost, Arakalian explains that its central location was key. “It’s close to the Flatiron District, close to Gramercy Park, in close proximity to Union Square,” he says, continuing, “The environment in which we’re located is a friendly, cozy neighborhood which is perfect for creating the type of upscale atmosphere the Alexandrians aimed for. We were not interested in high-volume foot traffic, very fast-type service,” Arakelian explains. “We want people to come in and enjoy the atmosphere, enjoy the design of the place—where they can wind down after work or during lunch and really enjoy the surroundings.” It’s an ethos evident in the name Almayass itself. When asked what it means, Arakelian explained that the word itself translates from Arabic as “rustling of the leaves”—the actual sound that leaves make when the wind blows over them. Suddenly the movement suggested by the type in the Almayass logo, as well as the prominent leaf, becomes crystal clear—and that relaxing sense is a theme carried throughout the restaurant’s interior.

Almayass Atmosphere

The environment exudes a graceful, understated elegance with dark hardwood floors and light walls lined with original artwork from Armenian/Lebanese artists, as well as sconces and pillar candles. Arakelian’s mother-in-law, an interior architect, designed the space, which includes a bar and lounge area in addition to the large main dining room. Her touch is evident in every detail. She designed the glass sculptures placed throughout the restaurant, as well as the hanging glass near the entrance, a work of art in itself. Chandeliers and some exposed brick help round out the artistic feel.

Almayass Eats

Get a little taste of everything by trying a medley of Almayass mezze dishes, an “…arrangement of tasting plates similar to what people would identify with tapas of the Spanish cuisine,” Arakelian explains. “We have a nice assortment of cold appetizers, warm appetizers, salads—even main courses in tasting portions—where everything is set on the table, and guests can enjoy a wide array of flavors and ingredients that carry them together.” A particular favorite of Almayass guests is the Mantee meat dish. “It’s an Armenian specialty,” Arakelian explains, “which is hand-rolled pasta dough filled with beef. We bake it in the oven so it becomes a crispy gold texture, and top it off with tomato broth and serve it with a side of yogurt.” Another special dish, an original creation of the restaurant, is the Basterma or Soujouk Almayass—fried quail eggs on French baguettes which are toasted with either Armenian pastrami (Basterma) or Armenian sausage (Soujouk).

Almayass Drinks

For some, there is perhaps no better way to experience such taste sensations than by sharing a bottle of hard-to-come-by Armenian wine. Almayass has a number in stock, something Arakelian admits is of distinct interest to wine connoisseurs. It’s also worth noting that Armenia is famous for his brandy—Winston Churchill was said to be a big fan, a fact that Arakelian enthusiastically shares—and Almayass does not disappoint. The restaurant carries two types: a three-year-old and a five-year-old Armenian brandy. The restaurant is constantly updating its cocktail list with seasonal flavors, showcasing original creations like Noor, a mix of Four Roses bourbon, pomegranate liqueur, and fresh lemon juice, as well as the classic Manhattan, made with Knob Creek bourbon blended with sweet vermouth and bitters. A particular summertime favorite is the Almayass Margarita, which, in addition to Milagro Añejo Tequila, is made with muddled cilantro, serrano chile peppers, Cointreau, and fresh lime juice.

While the family has plans for future franchises in the States, for the moment, they are “… focusing energies on making the New York location successful.” Spoken like a true expert in hospitality, Arakelian says their intent right now is to take care of the guests. “We’re not perfect yet but we’re trying to be as perfect as possible.” By our standards, they’re there already: receiving 10 out of 10 in guest reviews on New York Magazine’s website and notable praise from the New York Times. We think it might just be the perfect excuse to head to the other side of the river, don’t you? Reservations are highly recommended.

By Judy Grover, Editor