EREBUNI, LONDON, RESTAURANT REVIEW
07 May 2012
Matthew Norman finds an emigrees’ hidden treasure at Erebuni in
Matthew Norman is charmed by Erebuni Photo:
JEFF GILBERT By Matthew Norman
Restaurant Erebuni, London Guards Hotel, 36-37 Lancaster Gate, London
Contact: 020 7402 6067; [email protected]
Price: Three courses with wine and vodka: about £50 per head
Even in the trade I often describe without a shred of ironic intent
as the hardest game in the world, the Good Lord now and then shines
his light to illuminate the critic’s path. Such an intervention
transformed dinner at Erebuni.
Sitting entirely alone in the basement of an anonymous Lancaster Gate
hotel, awaiting a friend marooned in London traffic, expectations were
low. That Erebuni, named after a fortress in the Armenian capital of
Yerevan, targets itself exclusively at the expat market had become
apparent when the call to book a table was answered with a peremptory
“da, da?”, and the welcome had not been bathed in warmth.
A morose waiter was gracing me with the widest of berths. He stood
behind the bar in the adjoining room, polishing glasses while watching
on his telly the same Russian soap playing at deafening volume on the
set bang in front of me. As it finished on a seemingly muted dramatic
climax and the Cyrillic credits rolled, all it needed to complete
the wormhole trip back to the double-dip paradise of 1975, I felt,
was George Smiley ambling in with a Soviet attache he was hoping
to turn and play back at Karla in Moscow Centre. I love Cold War
atmospherics as much as the next nostalgist for an age when everyone
knew the geopolitical rules and lived in dread of nuclear annihilation,
but there must be limits.
Then my friend arrived, took in the vista of isolation, and posed
a question. “Do you think it would help if we mentioned,” mused
this daughter of an Armenian father, “that Aram Khachaturian was my
godfather?” I thought it might, what with the composer of the Sabre
Dance and the music for Spartacus being an Armenian national hero.
The waiter abandoned his glass-polishing and sidled over with the
menus, and I mentioned the Khachaturian connection. He nodded gravely,
flirted with a smile, proffered his hand to her, though not to me (I
considered claiming cousinhood with another fabled Armenian musician
– Charles Aznavour, perhaps, or possibly Cher – but bottled it),
and announced himself as Edouard. Suddenly the gloom lifted and out,
metaphorically, came the sun.
By the time Edouard returned with shots of vodka and the portable
wooden bell with which he could be summoned, we were already falling
for a restaurant whose jolly decor – wood panelling, colourful naif
paintings of rural scenes from the homeland, bright red tablecloths,
a dance floor in the other room; an expatriates’ club, all in all, with
a buzzy vibe even when half empty – had ceased to feel incongruous.
We ordered a bottle of Georgian red by way of a chaser, and set about
choosing an array of dishes. Sekhotats, thin strips of aubergine
flavoured with parsley and dill, was mild and pleasant, if a touch
anodyne, but basturma – Armenian dried beef – had more to say for
itself. We struggled to identify precisely what flavour it was trying
to impart (cinnamon? cloves? beetroot?), but it was dark, salty,
intimate and moreish. From the former imperial motherland of Russia
came Bliny S-Miasom (sic), pancakes filled with mince meat and served
with tomato and sour cream.
These were good, but the standout dish was Ukha Tsarskaya, which
mingled sturgeon and salmon with potato, tomato, pickled cucumber,
black olives and dill in a peppery, spicy, lemony broth that released a
distinct new flavour with each spoonful. Weird and wonderful in equal
measure, this favourite of Peter the Great is both the soup of kings
and a king among soups. “It reminds me of something my grandfather
used to make,” my friend enthused. “It’s something you’d only expect
to come across in the home of a cook as brilliant as he was.”
Both main courses were well presented and cooked, if less
individualistic. “Dolma echmiadzin” is listed as a traditional Armenian
dish, but while these vine leaves stuffed with mince, rice and spices
were fresh, juicy and full of fun, in a blind tasting they would take
some discerning from the version served across the Med.
The same went for Lula, grilled minced lamb served in taftoon bread
with artistically carved tomato, and barely distinguishable for what
one would expect in an Iranian joint.
The tellies had long since been extinguished, and a sequence of
ballads gave way to one of those musical novelties that lingers in the
mind… Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry as interpreted by an Armenian
folk singer. The Cold War had long since thawed, with a little help
from the flavoured vodka, and we were ever more rhapsodisic. “I’m
coming back one weekend soon for the Armenian dancing,” said my
friend over gateaux (a layered Napoleon known as “an exquisite Russian
delight”, and a luscious slice of honey and walnut cake).
When Edouard wandered over with coffee and delivered one last vodka
on the house, the Khachaturian-inspired glasnost was complete. “This
is officially my new favourite place,” she slurred as we tottered
unsteadily up the stairs of a restaurant infinitely too good to be
allowed to remain an emigrees’ hidden treasure a minute longer.