Mountain of hope

Food is rocky, but Ararat still rises

Food isn't everything. Other elements play a significant role in a successful dining experience. For one, there's service that delivers clean forks with every course instead of placing the dirty one from your finished plate next to your white shirtsleeve. There's dining-room music that isn't Kenny G. There's friendly valet service, where the valets direct cars toward the curb with a bright, flashing red wand.

And then there's atmosphere. Ararat, a new Middle Eastern restaurant in Deep Ellum, has all of these things--especially atmosphere. But not the kind you might think. It isn't striking, exceptionally tasteful, or even beautiful. But it works on you subliminally, suffusing you with comfort while it piques you with mystery.

Which was owner Hasan Tunc's intent. A Kurd born in Turkey and raised in Sweden, Tunc was a psychiatrist before he relinquished the profession and its intensities to become a restaurateur. And intense it was. For five years he practiced for the United Nations, attempting to rebuild the shattered psyches of torture victims from around the globe. He doesn't say much about it, except that it was rough. "I kind of burned out on it," he adds with a nervous chuckle.

Ararat was named after Mt. Ararat in Turkey, known to the Kurds as the "mountain of hope." Consisting of two volcanic peaks deep in eastern Turkey near the Iranian border, Ararat is believed to be the site where Noah's ark docked after the flood.

Ararat the restaurant is docked in a simple Deep Ellum warehouse slot with green concrete floors. It's spacious and inelegantly draped with large Persian rugs covering the walls and windows. "It's an extension of my home," says Tunc, who also owns Ararat restaurants in Austin and Paris. "The warmth of the place--nothing else but the rugs could give that effect."

Tunc says his aim is to soften the atmosphere and by extension, one's inner being. To that end, he has selected rugs burgeoning with reds and blues, colors he says have the most warming, calming effect on the psyche.

Also in this casual cluttering are metal lanterns arranged in clusters, hanging from different lengths of slightly curled wire. A legged chest near the entrance with menus and business cards fanned across its surface is a Kurdish piece dating to the 1700s. The dining room has 18th-century English and 19th-century French tables and chairs mingled among the more pedestrian furnishings.

One corner is a raised dining platform with low tables and small padded stools. Tunc says the Kurds traditionally dine closer to the floor and initially, he wanted to do the whole dining room in this fashion. "But people in this country want to sit a little bit high up," he laments. Two of the stools are hand-carved Kurdish pieces dating from the 18th century.

On the walls hang haunting, shadowy paintings--the work of Tunc. In fact, he created all of the artwork in the restaurant. Originally trained as an artist, Tunc worked at an Armenian restaurant in Paris while attending art school. From there, he went to Sweden for medical training, where he currently owns an art gallery. He came to Austin some five years ago to visit friends. He never left.

As I said, sometimes there's much more to a place than just the food. Which at Ararat, despite its melding of Kurdish, Persian, Armenian, Arabic, and Turkish influences, often comes off as limp and lazy, except for the appetizers, which can be lively and engaging.

Hallomi, a sandwich-like construction of cheese, tomato, olives, and capers grilled with bay leaves, is tangy, rich, and earthy. Egyptian salad with juicy tomatoes sharing space with cucumber, onion, and kalamata olives was topped with small wedges of mild feta cheese. The salad was crisp and sprightly fresh. Kasha, a jumbled mosaic of assorted nut bits and slivers of dried apricot in couscous, is freshly articulate, chewy, and tangy. A refreshing, fruity layer comes from a sowing of pomegranate seeds.

In fact, everything in Ararat is tossed with pomegranate seeds. Tunc says they are known in the Middle East as the seeds of light, or the fruit of paradise. The seed emerges symbolically in his Persian rugs, where it represents fertility.

Pomegranate is also used in the creation of a sharply tangy paste that looks like well-used 30-weight. It offers a cutting pungency to dolmeh, or stuffed grape leaves, which barely held their own against the other appetizers. On one visit the leaves were fine, but the rice was tough. On another, the leaves were rubbery and stringy, while the rice was tender.

But pomegranate seeds in any form couldn't save the entrees. Though frosted with tasty garlic rosemary sauce, the manaf, or roasted leg of lamb, was dry and chewy. Parts of it were hard and glistened with a dark purple sheen. Side heaps of pasty bulgar and bland Persian rice kept it mired in mediocrity.

It took only one bite of the baked rainbow trout for my companion to push the plate away and pronounce it inedible, though my own evaluation wasn't as harsh. I ended up eating most of it, curious as to exactly how this fresh (?) flesh had been murdered. Baked and served on a brick (maybe it was cornered in a pool and pummeled with the thing), the fish was mushy, watery, and virtually void of flavor, save for the spicy, rich tomato slices that covered the skin.

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