Mayrig – Armenian food arrives in Dubai
Armenian food probably isn’t as well known in Europe and North America as it should be. While the legacy of history has left communities of Armenians scattered around the Middle and Near East, their cuisine remains largely underappreciated outside of countries and cities with strong, established Armenian communities, notably Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus, Jerusalem, and – of course – Armenia itself. This is a shame, since Armenian food draws on diverse culinary influences from the Byzantine, Ottoman, Mongol, and Persian empires, while nonetheless remaining wholly distinctive. No self-respecting foodie with an interest in history (which might just possibly describe me) could possibly pass up that combination of imperial influences – which is why I found myself in Downtown Dubai’s Mayrig restaurant on a Thursday night.
It’s worth stressing that Mayrig’s menu isn’t solely Armenian, but rather Armenian with a ‘generous borrowing’ from the Lebanese cuisine of the original restaurant’s Beirut location; but this merely reflects the long-standing cross-cultural influences in Armenian food. There are 26 hot and cold appetisers on Mayrig’s menu, and only 11 mains, and I don’t doubt that anyone could eat really well piling up the starters in a meal of Armenian-style mezze – but that would also mean you miss some of the glories of the main courses. Not that there aren’t plenty of glories among the appetisers, mind, because those astonishing Armenian kebbe…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Faced with that long list of appetisers, our party of three cheated slightly, and ordered the Mayrig platter. This comes with a selection of vaspov keuftah (lentil kebbe; the latter is the menu spelling), Mayrig keuftah (potato kebbe), and ichi keuftah (raw kebbe Armenian style), served with three sauces – which, for lack of a menu or waiter description, I’ll call tomato vinaigrette, warm cooked meat with pine nuts, and onion jam. The lentil and potato kebbe were perfectly fine – quite good even – but were wholly overshadowed by the extraordinary meat kebbe, each richly textured mouthful a perfectly pounded pink meat and onion-based paste. They were astonishing – the best kebbe (or kibbeh!) I’ve likely ever eaten.
This raised high expectations for the mains, the first of which was spanakhov mante. While listed on the menu as spinach dumplings, tomato sauce and yoghurt, this perhaps underplays the historical roots of a dish that the Australian-Greek food writer Tess Mallos (who wrote extensively about Middle Eastern food) ascribed in part to a Mongol origin. The dish is neither wholly dumpling nor wholly pasta, lying somewhere between dumplings and small open ravioli. They come to the table with the yoghurt, tomato sauce, and a small dish of paprika, each served on the side. The waiter immediately offered to serve the sauces for us, pouring the tomato on first, then the yoghurt, and then sprinkling the dish with paprika. It was reasonably good, with the tart yoghurt a good match for the doughy dumplings. If that had been the only main I had tried at Mayrig, I would have thought the mains above average without necessarily being remarkable – though the dumplings do go slightly soggy in the sauces, if you don’t eat them quickly. But much as the lentil and potato kibbe were overshadowed by the meat kibbe, the spanakhov mante was wholly overshadowed by our second main.
Fishnah kebab is described on the menu as grilled kebab topped with wild sour cherries; while technically accurate, that’s rather like describing foie gras with truffles as ‘fattened goose liver with black fungus’. It’s a remarkable dish of delicately spiced meatballs buried under tangy and fruity wild cherries, served with small slices of crisp flatbread. Along with the meat kebbe, it was the highlight of the evening.
At this point, we were already full enough that we weren’t sure about dessert, though I made the necessary heroic effort just to try every part of the menu. I had the sultani anouch, a milk pudding with pistachios and a thin layer of apricot puree on top – a combination transformed by the rose essence-flavoured sugar syrup served on the side in a hand-blown glass pitcher.
On a pleasantly warm evening, the outside terrace of Mayrig was busy, smart and relaxed, with efficient, effective, friendly service (except for a small attentiveness wobble when the time arrived to pay the bill). It’s not a licensed restaurant, but nor is it at the cheap and cheerful end of ethnic Dubai dining. Most starters sit between AED30-50 (the Mayrig platter is AED100), while the mains at AED57-85 (fishnah kebab is the most expensive main). Our bill for three, including (non alcoholic, obviously) drinks came to AED333. This makes Mayrig an excellent option for diners looking for a well-presented meal of interesting ethnic food, free of both alcohol and pork. Though do be careful not to over-order. We found the Mayrig platter (equivalent to three starters), two mains, and a dessert to be absolutely adequate. The mains are remarkably filling given how deceptively small they look.
Much of Mayrig’s food is solid, pleasant, above average Lebanese-Armenian; but when it does hit the heights, as it certainly does with ichi keuftah and fishnah kebab – two dishes I would make a special effort to return for – you appreciate that Armenians deserve to be recognised for their food at least as much as they’re remembered for Charles Aznavour, Cher (aka Cherilyn Sarkisian), and being the victims of the 20th century’s first genocide.
So have I tempted you to taste Armenian food?
Until next time,
The Man in the White Hat.
So who’s The Man in the White Hat? He has an abiding interest in both history and food; his holidays tend to combine an intriguing local cuisine with a UNESCO World Heritage site, and he’s eaten his way across some 50 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America, and Australasia. He currently lives in Dubai, where he edits a couple of academic publications.