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.

Other meat turned in the same disenchanting performance, as if no seasonings were applied before cooking--or rather, overcooking. Diyar e bekir stew, marinated beef in a mushroom, tomato, onion, zucchini, and eggplant mush, was populated sparsely with dry, fibrous meat.

Still, even after the above diatribe, I would still say, without hesitation, that Ararat is worth a visit. Sample the kasha, salads, hallomi, and tabouli with a hot cup of mountain or hibiscus tea (a selection of Mediterranean wines will soon be offered) and enjoy the compellingly serene surroundings. Listen to traditional Middle Eastern music pumped from a mini hi-fi positioned on a piece of antique furniture.

Just watch what you eat after that.

"Is the cheese ravioli housemade?" Our waiter stumbled and hesitated a bit on the question. Then he looked at me, and with a sly smile, the kind that blinds with wool, he said firmly: "We make it here."

Yet, if what was presented was made on-premise, the chef should apply for a patent. For he perfectly re-created the flavor and consistency of boxed ravioli in a deep freeze. These pillows were stiff, chewy, and bland, with squishy cheese nougat. The chunky tomato sauce with wedges of tender zucchini and squash was actually fairly good, but not enough to save the dish from rigor mortis.

Sadly, Lorenzo's Bistro is another in a growing string of romantic dinner houses nesting in pedestrian strip malls that have their hearts in the right place while their wits weave and swerve over an unrelated course. The dining room, with Impressionist paintings, texturized brick, and recessed alcoves along the walls holding lamps, is attractive. And the service is attentive, considerate, and exceptionally pleasant.

Yet there just isn't that much attention to detail. After recommending a fish special, our server didn't seem to know what species it was--indeed, no one in the restaurant did--save that it was similar to tilapia. No matter, the stuff was spongy, with a coagulated coating of some kind sogged in an over-lemoned wine sauce. A pair of shrimp, dueling their tails over the top, had the flavor of mild bar soap.

Chicken Marsala, with a breast that seemed more like an implant, bathed in a sauce that was tired and uninteresting. Mediterranean salad was constructed with iceberg lettuce, tasteless canned black olives instead of kalamatas, and strips of roasted bell pepper stripped of flavor (is this possible? Grab another patent application).

There were some standouts. Escargot in mushroom caps settled in a puddle of rosemary sauce with tarragon and diced tomato was flush with flavor. Roasted rack of lamb drooled with a sweet succulence sparked with Dijon mustard sauce.

But then there was the tiramisu: an arrangement with nicely preserved, counter-opposed wedges of stiff, flavorless sponge. Plugged into the middle of the assembly was a little sign created from white chocolate. The word "tiramisu" was printed in gold over its surface. No doubt this dessert and the cheese ravioli are somehow related.

Ararat Middle East Restaurant. 2934 Main St., (214) 744-1555. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Open for dinner 5-11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday,5 p.m.-12 a.m. Friday & Saturday. $$-$$$

Lorenzo's Bistro. 18484 Preston Road, Suite 119, (972) 596-8610. Open for dinner only, 5:30-10 p.m. $$$-$$$$

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