ARTS

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November 25, 2003

Quality food, questionable service: like the Med, but better ... and Armenian

With a certain comforting inevitability, Saturday night arrived once again, with dining halls closed across campus in an attempt to force students out of their gustatory rut and into Chicago proper. It is a difficult task, especially as we race towards the frigid specter of another winter in the Windy City. Now that the days are growing colder, the temptation to stay safe and warm in the dorms is a mighty one indeed. There is something about having food delivered and curling up on the sofa with a good movie and a snuggle-buddy (in my case, my University of Chicago fleece blanket—take your affection where you can get it).

But after a relaxed night on Friday, my informal Saturday night dinner group found itself eager to venture out. Ironically enough, we ended up going formal for once. This is not to say that we normally eat in dives or greasy-spoon diners, but we actually went to some trouble this time. And for good reason.

Our typical modus operandi consists of rather arbitrarily choosing a restaurant based on whatever type of food had sprung to mind the Saturday before.

Normally this means someone requests a kind of food ("I've really been craving Italian," etc.), and we hunt down a restaurant that will serve us what we want. The result of this is somewhat biased, though, since it's pretty rare to crave foods that one has never tried. It took a suggestion from outside the group, for example, to get us to sample an Ethiopian restaurant.

Or what about Armenian, our latest venture? That was, admittedly, a personal gem. One of my friends is half Armenian, and given enough impetus, he finally ferreted out one of the few Armenian restaurants in Chicago—located just off Michigan Avenue, a slightly swankier locale than our normal weekend venues—for our latest Saturday night outing.

Our spirits emboldened, if somewhat soggy, we climbed onto the #6 Jackson, lurching our way down Michigan Avenue until we reached the Michigan and Wacker stop. The bus spat us out scant blocks from our destination; we simply walked up Michigan until we could turn onto Ohio.

The entrance to Sayat Nova, an Armenian restaurant of some 25-year residence on the Magnificent Mile, stands under a loud neon sign; there was a sleek Porsche waiting for valet parking by the door. For a moment we thought we might be in over our heads. Taking a collective breath and patting our wallets consolingly, we slipped through the door. We were happily surprised by the fact that Sayat Nova was remarkably affordable. Entrees ranged from $8 to $15, and portions were generous.

Inside its door, Sayat Nova was surprisingly intimate. Like many of the restaurants that line the streets of Chicago, the dining area is narrow but deep. Seating ranged from a raised area that looks out onto the streets, perches at the full bar that runs along the wall, and cozy booths set in alcoves. There are also tables near the booths. Our waiter sat us at one of these.

We immediately liked the décor. The restaurant's low, arched ceilings and dimmed sconce lighting were calming but not claustrophobic, and soft music made for a relaxing dinner. If only we hadn't been seated quite so near the kitchen; the two waiters on staff during our meal were running out of water by the time they reached our table, and getting another basket of pita bread proved a near impossibility. In the restaurant's defense, though, it seemed like the waitstaff might have been shorthanded, and the service definitely improved as the evening progressed.

Along with the atmosphere, the food made up for the lapses in service. We perused the menu as we munched away happily on the warm pita bread our waiter served us. Three of my four friends ordered sarma, which is a traditional Armenian dish of tender grape leaves stuffed with vegetables and spices (as well as minced lamb in the non-vegetarian version), cooked in a light garlic sauce and served with lemon on the side. The sarma, along with slices of eggplant cooked and chilled to the rich consistency of meat, was excellent. Adjectives abound, but some of my companions' favorites included zesty, rich, savory, and tangy. My other friend had more common fare, chicken kebab served with vegetables and rice pilaf, which he liked immensely.

Finding myself the most adventuresome of the group, I ended up with a little of everything by ordering the Armenian combo, which featured lamb sarma with the accompanying eggplant, cheese boereg, a flaky baked philo triangle stuffed with delicate cheeses and green onion, and kufta, which is a large meatball in mint yogurt soup. The combo was an easy way to try many of the traditional Armenian dishes Sayat Nova serves; I loved everything, using the pita to clean my plate. In addition to the sarma, the other Armenian dishes proved to be delicious. I was a little wary of the kufta—something about the idea of mint yogurt soup sounded a bit suspicious—but I was pleasantly surprised to find the "soup" was actually more of a sauce for the flavorful, fist-sized meatball. The boereg was delicate and literally melted in my mouth.

After our main dishes, we felt full enough to refuse our waiter's offer of dessert or coffee. We settled our check and wandered down Michigan Avenue, peering carelessly into shop windows decorated for the holidays and reliving the mouth-watering tastes we'd discovered earlier in the evening.