Sunday, April 22, 2012

In the Stockade

Sometimes I think we live a little bit out of sync with everyone else. On weekends, particularly, we tend to start our days late. We get up late, and if we get out of the house, it's also late. This means we're usually hungry around 3 pm - which is just the wrong time. It's when lunch is over but dinner hasn't begun.

Some places are busy enough and eclectic enough that this doesn't matter, but other times we've missed out on lunch, or else we arrive at an empty restaurant.

This was the case one Saturday after a trip to the Norton Simon Museum, The museum is in Pasadena, which is some 40 miles east of our home, Topanga. On our way home, we checked out the Yelp app on my phone, and came up with an option for lunch in Glendale.

Note the restaurant across the street
 Glendale, CA is home to one of the largest Armenian-American communities in the US, so when we came up with Old Gyumri, it sounded intriguing. The address, on San Fernando Road, was in a stretch of auto repair shops and tile and flooring showrooms. A low, cinderblock building occupied a parking lot, empty except for a pearly-cream Audi nosing out the driveway, a glamorous blonde at the wheel, wearing oversized dark glasses and grimacing at our little Honda interrupting her line of sight to make the turn.

"Do you think it's open?"

"The listing said good for lunch and dinner," I said. "Look, the door's open."

The entry, through an arched door fashioned from heavy wooden planks, was tiled and had a trickling wall-fountain. The dark room to one side was furnished with tables and chairs; to the other side was a room that seemed to be bisected by a wooden fence. Just inside the door, a bar stocked with fancy bottles glittered, and a propped door opened onto a kitchen hallway humming with machinery and thrumming fluorescent light. There wasn't a soul to be found.

"Hello?" It was hard to tell whether the sounds in the kitchen were human or simply mechanical.

"Hello, are you guys open?"  We wandered through the darkened dining room. The furnishings were rustic-looking, rough-hewn pine. A small stage carpeted in black, with speakers flanking it, was wedged into a corner. We peeked into a private dining alcove, lined with more rustic fencing, but it was a dead end. We turned back toward the open kitchen door.


Just as we were about to leave, a young dark-haired woman in waiters' black-and-white appeared in the kitchen doorway. "Are you open to serve food?" we asked.

"To go?"

"To eat here, if we can," we said, and she looked at us as if we were asking something bizarre and strange, but then she pushed at the wooden fence, which opened to reveal a dining booth, motioning us to sit down.

In halting English, she offered us menus and took our drink orders. There was much gesturing back and forth to assure that my order was a glass of white wine, not a bottle. As she left us to get the drinks, we looked around in amazement.

The view out the stockade doors
The table was long and massively wooden. You could have seated a party of ten on the long cushioned benches. The whole thing was surround by a fence of thick, dark-stained wooden poles, sharpened to points at the top like pikes. Hinged doors allowed the booth to be closed off from the rest of the room. The walls were decorated with collages of dried seeds and pods, and small clay amphora hung from the sharpened palisades by leather thongs. It all looked very rustic and primitive, evoking perhaps a medieval Cossack fortress.

So far, before even looking at the menu, the place was extraordinary.

The menu, though, is intriguing. Armenian cuisine is often similar to Mid-Eastern cuisine, with kebabs and hummus, but here there were other items we didn't recognize. Salads, soups, hot appetizers were all new words to us. The entrees included the usual kebab, but also oxtail stews, lamb chops, beef stroganov and sturgeon. The waitress said she was Russian - we wondered if perhaps Old Gyumri was more influenced by Russian culture than by Lebanese.

I would have liked to know more about the unusual entrees, but I was a little abashed about the language barrier. We ordered two appetizers - pickled vegetables and an eggplant dip. [The Man I Love] ordered the grilled pork ribs and I ordered Luleh Kebab, which is a kebab of chopped beef. Both were served with rice and grilled vegetables.

Eggplant dip
The eggplant dip was bright orange with roasted pimentos, and served with lavash flatbread.  The pickles included cabbage, carrots, cauliflower and cucumbers, and they were puckery sour and good. The portions were huge - a slab of pork ribs for him and two substantial kebabs for me, with a huge pile of rice. My glass of wine was from Armenia, and it was pleasant and fruity.

Luleh kabob
We were the only customers in the place, but it was easy to see that there was an expectation for large groups and parties of hungry eaters. All the tables were large - you could imagine groaning boards filled with platters of mezze and dishes served family style.  The stockade-like booths would ring with boisterous laughter and toasts of celebration. "I'd love to come here with a huge group and try a dozen things on the menu," I said.

It wasn't until we finished our meal that we saw anyone other than the young waitress. Then the proprietor came to introduce himself. "Old Gyrumi" he explained, refers to an historic city in Armenia, one with a rich cultural heritage. Unfortunately, much of the old city was destroyed in a devastating earthquake in 1988. We were given a tour of the custom charcoal-fueled brazier that turned out the delicious grilled meats. And he proudly showed us the imported Armenian brandy - much of it aged over ten years. We heard how people flocked to hear great Russian and Armenian music and dancing on weekend evenings.

Selection of brandies
 We asked him about the decor - whether the stockade feature was a common theme in Armenian culture, and - pointing to the earthenware pots - asked if they'd come from Armenia.

"Oh, no," he said. "We buy these from Mexico."  The restaurant, he explained, with its arch-topped windows, tilework and rustic wood, had been a Mexican restaurant before he bought it. There were many craftsmen in Mexico, he said, where you could get furnishing like this at a very good price.

In the stockade
It was a disconcerting moment. Suddenly instead of imagining Cossacks on horseback riding the barren Steppes to sack rustic villages with wooden-hewn cottages, the setting transformed itself before our eyes and we saw mariachis playing to margarita-sipping customers sitting at tile-topped tables decorated with brightly colored tissue-paper flowers. Holy guacamole!

Los Angeles. Where nothing is quite what it seems to be.


Max Sartin said...

I do the same thing on weekends, usually don't have breakfast until well after noon. That's what they are for, no?

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Suddenly instead of imagining Cossacks on horseback riding the barren Steppes to sack rustic villages with wooden-hewn cottages, the setting transformed itself before our eyes and we saw mariachis playing to margarita-sipping customers sitting at tile-topped tables decorated with brightly colored tissue-paper flowers.

Would you believe mariachis on horseback stealing margaritas from the customers?

/Agent 86

Holy guacamole!

One of my favorite phrases.

cactus petunia said...

You guys are so adventurous! Now you've made me hungry for Armenian food!

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Holy guacamole!
Well, I still think it sounds like a great place for a group of blogging friends to meet!

M. Bouffant said...

If you're sleeping in you're still young at heart, as the song/cliche goes.

The longer we avoid rising at dawn & waiting for the early-bird dinner the better.

Anonymous said...

Great story. And my daughter lives in Glendale and I think we have a new restaurant to explore!