The snow-capped mountains on the large sign for Kavkaz Family Restaurant are Mount Ararat, the legendary resting stop for Noah's ark and the national symbol for Armenians. That sign stands in front of a free-standing building on Stallings Road -- a surprising place to find an outcropping of southwestern Asian cuisine, but Kavkaz has become a beckon for ex-pats from that part of the world.
One sign of the growing Armenian community in Charlotte was the 2005 opening of St. Sarkis Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church on Park Road. While part of population expansion is due to newcomers, many American Armenians emigrated following the horrific genocide which occurred nearly 100 years ago. Recent Armenian, Georgian, and Azerbaijan émigrés had been part of the former Soviet Union; therefore, Russian is the lingua franca and some foods link these ex-pats.
Thus, while the ownership of the 37-seat Kavkaz is Armenian, the foods represent a broad spectrum of appeal, one that has never found its way into the Charlotte area beyond the specialty grocers and delis. For the Ivanov family, Kavkaz is their first restaurant venture. Sargis Ivanov and his son Arnak control the operations while Flora Ivanov mans the open kitchen using her family recipes.
Kavkaz is a modest restaurant, converted from a fast food joint, where the dishes are myriad and the resulting taste is grand. While lamb, eggplant and yoghurt are the trinity of Armenian cooking, this cuisine is enthused with robust dishes from surrounding countries or former allied nations such as the Ottoman Empire provinces of Greece and Lebanon.
Among the beverages offered are Georgian wines served by the glass and bottle, a pomegranate wine from Armenia, a Maldovan dessert wine, and beers, including some from Germany, Slovenia and the Ukraine. Although icy cold tahn, aka aryan -- a salty yogurt and water drink -- had been offered on the menu, it recently was removed. (Visit ethnic restaurants when they first open. Typically, menu changes occur during the first month, and though some dishes may be authentic and wonderful, if they do not sell they are removed.)
In the first wave of dishes to hit our table, the most successful are the ones with origins near Ararat. Does that mean I'm dishing the hummus? Yes. Although nowadays hummus has as many flavor profiles as a trendy martini list, flavorful tahina and fresh lemon juice must be the base. On the other hand, the khachapuri, a Georgian cheese stuffed pastry baked to order, was a stunner. So much warmth and care are issued from both the kitchen and staff that you want to like all ensuing dishes. And we did. The meat platter arrives with thinly sliced sujuk (aka yershig), kielbasa, and basturma, the renowned Armenian spicy, air-dried raw beef -- like pastrami on flavor overload. More fun, however, are the Georgian khinkali: plump, steamed meat dumplings in a beggar purse presentation. The trick is to chew off the "hat" and suck the interior juices before being drenched, then dunk the savory meat into the accompanying bowl of sour cream.
The majority of entrées are either larger orders of the appetizers or kabobs. The latter comes as either whole morsels of marinated chicken, lamb, pork, or beef or lulas, which are tubes of grilled minced meats mixed with parsley and onions. A singular platter entrée combines the four meat kebobs on a bed of long grained rice flecked with broken vermicelli. The blinchik, Armenian/Georgian/Azerbaijani crêpes, ooze with a hearty ground beef filling. Not all the sides are successful: The mashed potatoes had the consistency of an uncooked pierogie. Better was the cole slaw with a bright mélange of crisp vegetables.
Flora Ivanov's desserts, alluring for their extravagance, include a Georgian Napoleon, a grapefruit sized mound of multi-layered pastry filled with sweet cream, and nazuk gata, flakey Armenian pastries served with a not-too-robust espresso. Prices for entrées range from $10 to $15 while sandwiches ($6 to $11) are offered all day.
In the evening, patio tables fill with friends sharing the water pipe and drinking beer. Why don't they order the blinchiks? Or the khachapuri? My best advice about Kavkaz? Go hungry.
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Kavkaz Family Restaurant: International and Eastern European Cuisine, 1542 Stallings Road, Stallings. 704-821-6364. Hours: Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. until 9 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. until 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. Patio. Water pipe available on patio. www.kavkazrestaurant.com.