The décor and architecture at a traditional restaurant often remind expatriates of their native land, while letting uninitiated visitors sample the culture behind the cuisine. Occasionally an ambitious restaurateur goes even further, and you walk through a door to find yourself in another place and time.
At Old Gyumri in Glendale, the place is Armenia, the time is the Middle Ages, and the door you walk through could resist a Mongol invasion. The massive timber construction is reminiscent of a fort or chateau, and nothing in the décor suggests this continent or century. Armenian food is available all over Glendale, but nowhere is it presented in such an authentic atmosphere.
The menu is not very informative for newcomers to this cuisine, though there are many familiar items. Armenian food has similarities to Greek and Middle Eastern cuisine, so the kebabs, cucumber salads, tabbouli and flatbreads are there for those who like to stick with what they know. The flavors may not be quite what you expect — Armenians like to cook with fruit and use subtly different spices, so you might detect a scent of pomegranate juice in the humus, or zesty green herbs in a kufta kebab. As a Christian country with links to the Mideast, you will find pork used with spices that you might associate with countries where pork is never eaten.
The best way to dine here is to get a group together and ask for a traditional menu, which might include small portions of 15 salads and starters. I tried this, and the appetizers alone were a feast — plates of spicy eggplant, tart pickled vegetables, cucumber-yogurt sauce with flatbread, an array of salads and the delicate cheese turnovers called borek. We also had slices of the garlicky cured beef called basturma, a version of which is better known as pastrami. Basturma is air-dried in the same way Italian prosciutto is, with a similar chewy texture but a big flavor of cumin, paprika and a hefty dose of garlic.
If you ask your server for a recommendation, they will almost always suggest kebabs, which are delicious and a reliable crowd-pleaser. By all means get some, but also request ker u soos, a thick, hearty casserole topped with a layer of fried potatoes. The name means “shut up and find out” — it’s the cook’s answer to “What’s under those potatoes?” What’s hidden is a delicious mix of chicken or beef, onion and other vegetable stewed together, with the crisp potato topping providing a taste and texture counterpoint.
Armenian and Georgian beers and wines are offered, and should be tried — winemaking began in this region, and though Armenian wines had a bad reputation in the Soviet era, many are now excellent. Be brave, order widely, and savor the flavors of a world apart from conventional ideas of east and west.
What: Old Gyumri
Where: 4441 San Fernando Road, Glendale.
Cost: Appetizers, $1.75 to $13; soups and salads, $5 to $8; sandwiches, $5 to $9; entrees, $9 to $16
Hours and details: Open Mon.-Thurs. 10 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri.-Sun. 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Offstreet parking, wheelchair access OK, beer and wine served.
Contact: (818) 550-0448.