Arlington Advocate, MA Nov. 4, 2004
Couple revamps shop into cozy eatery on Massachusetts Ave. By Brooke Leister/ Staff Writer
With dishes such as hot borscht, herring fillets, Armenian lamb shish kebab and blinis with caviar, Café Levonya offers a taste of a world few ever have the opportunity to visit.
Husband and wife team, Levon Ovassapian and Anya Kagansky, serve traditional Russian and Armenia cuisine at their cozy, welcoming restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue.
`The best compliments come from people from that part of the world. They say, `That's my borscht! That's how I cook it, Kagansky said.
The pair, who have been married for three years, bought the space four years ago when it was a Russian grocery store. The space has slowly evolved from the store to a small sandwich shop to its current incarnation as an intimate restaurant with bright, cheery orange walls decorated with colorful artwork.
`We had a vision for the restaurant. We wanted to do it from day one when we met each other. We always liked to entertain,' said Kagansky, 49.
Often when they entertained, friends would compliment Ovassapian's cooking and say, `You should cook for the public, not just for the house,' Kagansky said.
Kagansky, who was a choral director in Siberia, moved to the United States in 1989 with her son Michael, now a medical student at Washington University in St. Louis. Her husband, formerly a classical ballet dancer from Armenia, moved to the U.S. 10 years ago.
`I love the U.S.,' said Ovassapian, 40. `Everything is for the people. (Everyone) can do something.'
Soon after moving to Los Angeles, Ovassapian found himself running Lavash Bakery. He was later transferred to Watertown to run a bakery, by the same name, there.
For both, food has played an important role in their lives, especially when they were growing up.
`If you got lamb and were cooking shish kebab, it had to be cooked outside. You had to share with your neighbors. His (Ovassapian's) shish kebabs are outstanding. It's very good, very different. He makes it with lots of love,' she said.
When they began making plans for the restaurant, the pair envisioned a cozy, elegant and romantic space with music playing. All has been accomplished in the restaurant, which seats up to 30.
`It's almost like throwing a party in your house. If you put heart into it, they'll love it,' said Kagansky, who also owns Anya's Spa in Lexington.
The recipes were all adapted by Ovassapian to suit his tastes. While Kagansky, who calls herself an expert in borscht, supplied her recipe, her husband adjusted it to his taste. Same with the blinis. He adds a bit of sugar to offset the saltiness of the salmon and caviar, which often accompany it.
When they decided to go into business together, Kagansky said they shared the same vision. Since opening the restaurant, Kagansky has learned to be patient.
`I work at the salon where you have to be speedy, but here you can not be speedy. If a shish kebab cooks for 20 minutes, you can not speed it up,' she said. `People don't mind if they are waiting, if you are providing good quality... Nothing is pre-cooked here. Everything is made from scratch.'
Customers hail from many backgrounds, and some days Kagansky said it seems as if everyone is speaking a different language.
`Russia had such a big influence on other countries,' Kagansky explained. `They all say, `Oh my god! My grandmother cooked that.' You want to teach your children, your grandchildren. You want to keep that tradition.'
The couple's friend Garen Avetissyan, who was visiting from Armenia, said the restaurant offers Americans a way to experience another part of the world.
`Whoever walks in here, everyone is just amazed, even people who are used to this food from eastern Europe. People who have never tried it before, their eyes pop out of their head. Some people never got around after the Cold War to get to know this part of the world. Trying food is the American way of experiencing the world,' said Avetissyan, a former Waltham resident.