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|Owner|| Silva Kharshafjian, Alice Attarian, Der Hova|
|Address|| 28 Charents Street|
|Phone|| (+374-10) 57-29-45|
A fusion of food and design at Charentsi 28
“This is Provence!”
Published: Friday November 27, 2009 in Food
Yerevan - When a recent guest to Armenia first saw the chic new restaurant Charentsi 28, she exclaimed, "This is Provence! This is Provence!"
Indeed, stepping through wrought-iron gates, you enter a cozy and charming courtyard full of potted plants and grapevines reminiscent of the south of France. It takes a few minutes to realize that you are not in Provence, but in Armenia. And then entering through the elegant front door, painted an audacious red - at least audacious for Yerevan - into the main dining area, you feel as though you've been transported to Greece with its white-washed walls and clean lines.
With its eclectic and constantly changing menu and stylish ambiance, Charentsi 28 is a fusion of food and design that offers diners a respite from the more ornate and lavishly appointed restaurants one can find throughout the city these days.
The restaurant, which opened in August 2008, is owned and operated by two very dynamic, I daresay, gutsy women. Silva Kharshafjian and Alice Attarian can easily be considered pioneers of the repatriation movement. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, these two women, one from Canada, the other from Greece, took that great leap of faith and jumped headfirst into the unknown. At first, very few dared to follow them, and then came an achingly slow trickle of diaspora Armenians making the journey to the homeland, not simply for a visit, but as a place to live and work and serve by example.
Their partners in this business venture include Harout Der-Hovagimian, better known as the dance-music producer and composer, DerHova (see Armenian Reporter, September 6, 2008 issue) and another friend from Canada.
Just need to find a place to eat!
"Alice and I have been in Armenia since the 90s and we have seen the development of the restaurant business in the city," Silva says. In those early years, if they wanted to go out or take guests out to enjoy a good meal, most restaurants offered the same basic menu - khorovadz and more khorovadz. "When I moved here in 1991, there was really nothing. Slowly, especially in recent years, new restaurants began opening and, seeing this, we wanted to bring our own experience to the table," she says.
That experience included combining their own personal stories when it came to developing the menu for the restaurant, which includes Western Armenian, Greek, and even Thai and Indian dishes.
"The Greek influences in the menu are Alice's, including saganaki. And mine were mostly those dishes of Western Armenia," Silva explains. "I taught our chef how to make madzunov kufteh, seitov sarma, muhammara."
Incidentally, the madzunov kufteh has become a favorite with customers in the winter, when it is traditionally made, and even in the summer months, probably due to an influx of diaspora Armenian tourists who are craving familiarity.
DerHova for his part insisted on including Caesar Salad on the menu, which Silva and Alice hadn't considered initially. His insistence wasn't simply whimsical - he actually developed an original recipe, which brought Caesar Salad to the menu. Today, it's probably the best Caesar you can have in the city. DerHova's talents, it seems, extend beyond music. And then there was...Thai and Indian
Since Charentsi 28's menu does not consist of one particular style or cuisine, introducing dishes that are as diverse as Thai and Indian comes as no surprise. Silva explains that their restaurant, unlike others which boast a French or Italian chef on staff, doesn't have only one chef with one particular specialty. "Because our menu is a mixture, a representation of all of us, there is a separation of labor in the kitchen," she says. "We have one person preparing the Western Armenian dishes, another person who specializes in preparing steaks; so we thought, why not include Thai and Indian?" But because Thai and Indian cuisine is so rich with an immense variety of dishes, they have included only the best-known specialties from both countries. The most popular one on their menu is the Pad Thai Noodle.
And does this fusion of dishes work? The women explain that most locals love to see a very big menu, they like to have choice. "In the beginning we had a limited menu to maintain quality, but then we said let's try it and it's been successful," Silva says.
From the Greek dishes, one of the restaurant's specialties is the Crete Feta Salad, which is made of tomatoes and a very special Cretan dry bread made of barley rusks and wheat flour. The bread is made only on the island of Crete and the women import this specialty to Armenia. The bread is so dry and tough, almost stone-like, that it's impossible to eat on its own, but when topped with tomatoes and olive oil it softens and becomes a very tasty salad. Izmir Kebab or Sujukakia is another favorite Greek item on the menu. Made in Armenia
As a matter of principle, Silva and Alice try to use as many local ingredients as possible. Because most vegetables are available only seasonally in Armenia, in the winter they depend on local greenhouses for their tomatoes, cucumbers, arugula, broccoli, leek, and green pepper.
The interior furnishings at Charentsi 28, including chairs, tables, and the bar, were designed and hand-made in Armenia, Alice explains. That brings us to the building itself. Built in the 1950s, it is a beautiful example of the French influences one can see in Armenian architecture from that time period, Alice explains.
Located on - where else? - Charentsi 28, the building has, over the last half-century, housed families, organizations, NGOs, and embassies.
Alice, the designer, was inspired when she saw the building. "I always wanted to do something like this. I come from a country which has a lot of tourism. Because Armenia also has a tourism industry, not only diaspora Armenians but foreigners too, I wanted to do something different. I looked at this restaurant in those terms," Alice explains. "I understood that if you can cater to the tourist who comes to your restaurant and offer them world-class service and menu, then you will have helped not only that tourist feel good about Armenia, but you will have helped Armenia."
The two-story building was completely gutted and after 14 months of renovation, opened its red door to the public. "In Greece many old homes like this one that have gardens and balconies have been converted into restaurants and for that reason, I always wanted to do something similar here in Armenia," says Alice. "Restaurants in Yerevan are typically very dark with heavy designs. Because I am a designer, those kinds of restaurants always bothered me."
The more traditional restaurants, which offer the classic menu of khorovadz, oftentimes have a lot of ornate woodwork, heavy wooden chairs, marble and granite. "They are not very welcoming," Alice says. "I moved here in 1990 when there weren't really any restaurants. I would go wherever I could find but I knew that things would get better. They did and more and more restaurants opened, but their decor was so imposing and not welcoming at all." Open and light
"I always wanted to go to a restaurant which was open and light, without loud music, where I could enjoy a great evening with friends," Alice continues. This building lent itself to that concept. "We left the interior layout intact - exactly the way it was 50 years ago, and even the furniture, the chairs and the tables are reminiscent of Yerevan in the 50s and 60s." The chairs in the restaurant are an exact replica of a chair made in Yerevan in the 1960s. Alice had seen this chair and commissioned an experienced carpenter to make it. "Today, when people come to our restaurant, they always say, ‘Oh, we had this chair in our house back in the day!'"
Alice explains that contemporary restaurant design developing in Milan, Rome, and Paris includes white walls and simplicity, hence the footprint of their own design for Charentsi 28.
The clientèle at the restaurant include tourists, especially foreign tour groups, upwardly mobile locals, repats, expats, government officials, and people from embassies and international organizations.
Aside from the beautiful courtyard at the entrance of Charentsi 28, there is a second-floor, which boasts a lovely sitting-area and a terrace for parties and cocktails.
After living and working in Armenia for the past two decades, what keeps them here?
"People have asked me this question so many times. The first thing I tell them is that after 1988, when we were appealing to the people of Armenia not to leave the country, to stay - it would get better, I said, and everybody made fun of me because I could barely speak any Armenian at the time, I knew that I cannot say these things while I am sitting in Greece, when I'm on the outside," Alice explains. "I said I have to go there and whoever listens to me - an old woman, the young person, whoever they are, from the inside I can say things differently." This was just as surprising for the locals as it was for Alice's friends and acquaintances back in Greece. "People would say to me, go back to Greece where it is beautiful and sunny. Here, it is cold and muddy," she says. "I would tell them that if they could survive here with families, children, old parents then I could too, after all, I was only one person." As an afterthought she says, "The first time I saw snow in my entire life was in Armenia. I was scared at first of the snow, but then I got used to it."
Alice acknowledges that so much has changed since 1990. She hangs on to the hope that things have gotten better. "Our problems are not unique to us. These problems exist everywhere but because this place is ours, it affects us more, we feel it more."
When Silva moved to Armenia with her husband Kevork in 1991, it was a natural decision. "When Armenia became independent, we decided to go and see that country about which we had dreamed our whole lives," she says. "We had been taught about it from our school days; it was our dream, our vision. So when it became independent how could we not come? I believe that with our moving here, in the long haul we make a difference. After all, we are not living like a plant; we are making a contribution to our homeland."
Whether it's the food, the architecture, the design, or the ambiance, Charentsi 28 is a unique, beautifully appointed restaurant that has raised the bar for other establishments. Small touches, from the unobtrusive service to original works of art, to the great music - no doubt Derhova's touch - makes this restaurant among the best in Yerevan.
For its owners, more than being a business, Charentsi 28 is a a labor of love, it's a belief system, and it's a dream and a vision and a statement that all roads must lead home.