The bartender wore black. His head shaved around the sides, he struck an imposing figure behind the small bar of Ararat, the new Russian/Armenian restaurant-cum-nightclub that has sprung up inside an Armenian bakery.
Dan, my comrade for the evening's adventure in post-Soviet fusion cuisine, went to the bar seeking salt and pepper for his beef stroganoff. The bartender met his request, then asked: "You are American?"
Dan nodded, and the bartender smiled.
"Americans never come here," the bartender said. "And him, is he American?" He gestured to where I sat at a small table. Dan replied in the affirmative, and I flashed what I hoped to be friendliest let-us-reach-beyond-boundaries smile.
Portland's "ethnic" restaurants, once you get beyond the thicket of real-deal Mexican and Asian places, tend to be highly processed for American consumption. Ararat, at the leading edge of a probable boomlet catering to ex-Soviet immigrants, offers an experience far removed from such Yanqui-ized environments. The night we visited, a synth-based duo cranked out Russian pop (and an interesting version of "Hava Nagila"). A sprawling extended family in celebratory mode filled one side of the dining room, while in the bar a few older men and women (most smoking like coal-fired plants) mixed with twentysomething slicksters fired up for a night out.
Ararat feels more like Brighton Beach or Brooklyn than the East Bank. While that's a fine thing, it's hard to imagine packs of upscale Portland foodies crowding in. That's a shame, because Ararat dishes up a sturdy rendition of Russia's much-maligned cuisine, with some of Armenia's more Middle Eastern flavors thrown in.
After a shot of Stoli ($5), we started with the red caviar ($9.95), served with slices of dense brown bread and a pile of confetti-like butter shavings. If you want caviar, you want good caviar, and Ararat's nails the perfect salty tang. An appetizer dish of stewed eggplant and tomatoes, on the other hand, was a bland disappointment, as indifferent as canned spaghetti sauce.
For a main course, I dined on pork shish kebab ($14.95), bursting, marinated chunks of white meat lurking beneath sliced onions so fresh and al dente that I nearly cried. Dan took a shot at the stroganoff ($13.95), which joins other usual suspects like chicken Kiev on the entree list. Ararat's stroganoff is as sweet and creamy as one could wish, though it comes without the pasta most Americans are used to seeing with this dish. Dan's choice of a side--French fries--marked another departure from tradition.
A single evening makes a thin foundation for judgment of any restaurant. Still, from our visit, it would seem that Ararat's kitchen offers unpretentious and sound fare from a culinary tradition still under-represented in Portland. However, its greatest assets may well be its clamorous atmosphere and unapologetic authenticity, so far unmediated by the Great Homogenizer.
111 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 235-5526. Open very late weekends, with live music.
Ararat is one of few Portland restaurants with an actual dress code: no shorts for men, please.