Thursday, 28 June 2007
Word of Mouth
Alex Horne – 19th and 28th June 2007
Four weeks ago, for the first time ever, I went to a restaurant and ate a three course meal plus coffee, on my own. And not just any old restaurant, Erebuni, the best and only Armenian restaurant in London.*
You’ve probably never heard of Erebuni. It’s not an omnipresent chain like Garfunkels or a glamorous draw like The Ivy. There are no celebrity chefs. In fact, if and when you eventually pinpoint the address on the inside corner of Lancaster Gate (apologies for hedging my bets with that ‘if and when’ – it’s probably ‘when’, you’ll almost certainly find it in the end, but you never know), you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d made a mistake and walking on. That’s what Owen and I did on the first of my three pilgrimages. And we forgave ourselves.
Its official address is 36-37 Lancaster Gate. But 36-37 Lancaster Gate is almost entirely a hotel; the London Guards Hotel, one of those London hotels that hasn’t changed a stitch since the war.
When people are modest you say they’re hiding their light under a bushel. Now, I don’t know what a bushel is but I’m pretty sure hiding your light under a hotel is even more extreme. I mean, if a bushel is just a bush, you’d still see a bit of the light – unless it’s a particularly dense plant. And if a bushel is actually a bucket (as some would have you believe), that’s still not nearly as well hidden as in the basement of an obscure hotel in Lancaster Gate.
After we’d called Yellow Pages and convinced ourselves that this at least used to be the right place we went in and asked at reception if he knew anything about a phantom eastern European eatery. ‘It’s in the basement’, said the bored man. ‘Where the hotel guests have their breakfast. But it’s closed now.’ Ah, of course.
We shuffled back out to the rather grandiose square and I dialled the number that the more helpful man from the Yellow Pages had thoughtfully texted me. After a good few rings, someone picked up. ‘Hello’ said what I hoped was an Armenian voice. ‘Are you there?’ I said. ‘Yes’, he said. ‘Are you the Erebuni restaurant?’ I asked. ‘I am Edward, the manager’, he said. ‘Brilliant!’ I shouted, before explaining who we were, what we were doing and why I was so happy. ‘Fine’, he said, taking the whole matter in his stride. ‘I’m normally in around seven’. ‘Great’, I said, ‘we’ll come back at seven sometime soon’.
Very soon in fact. At seven O’clock that very evening I returned, without Owen this time, and bravely descended a tiny creaking staircase into the depths of the hotel to be greeted by an extremely glamorous waitress. She led me to a table adorned with a red tablecloth and a red rose. There were only four other diners, all similarly glamorous girls sitting round a similarly bedecked table in the corner. I felt a bit awkward. It’s odd eating a meal on your own, especially when you’re in a restaurant that makes you feel like you’re in a foreign country. I did pretend to myself – and anyone watching – that I was a spy, on some important mission. But mostly I felt terribly self-conscious.
‘Is Edward here?’ I asked when the waitress brought over a menu. ‘Not yet’, she replied. ‘Will he be here soon?’ I tried. ‘Maybe’, she said. ‘He normally gets here between 7 and 9’. Well I guess I better order some food then, I thought. And said, very quietly.
I’ve never been to a soviet country so everything on the menu was exciting/terrifying. Should I go for the Chicken Tapaka: ‘extremely popular in Armenia: a whole baby chicken flattened and marinated in spices and lemon juice’ – or ‘a fish broth with complimentary vodka’? An impossible decision. Especially when some fairly dynamic eurovision style pop is blaring out of the speaker above your head at an unnecessarily high volume.
In the end I played it fairly safe with some traditional Ukrainian ravioli style dumplings stuffed with cottage cheese and served with sour cream followed by chicken Kiev. Yes, I know that’s not Armenian. But did you know that it’s not Ukrainian either? It’s actually a dish created in New York by restaurants trying to attract Russian immigrants in the early 1900s. It's a bit like Scotch eggs. Not from Scotland. They were originally a pub snack (much better than crisps) designed and produced in England but given a more hearty name. Which came first? The Chicken Kiev or The Scotch Egg? As far as I can tell, they were both invented at about the same time. Good, that’s a whole paragraph about breadcrumbed chicken bits.
Ten minutes later, the food arrived and I instantly knew I’d chosen well. This was my sort of food. Rich, heavy, creamy, garlicky, delicious. By the time I’d polished off the chicken I’d almost forgotten Edward still hadn’t turned up. It was now eight thirty. I had to leave by nine. I decided to ask the waitress to help but she said she was from Lithuania and that Edward was the only Armenian. Probably in all of London I thought, then gritted my teeth, ordered some coffee and determined to play the waiting game (surely one of the most tedious games around).
Half an hour and some serious coffee later, still no sign. I pleaded with my waitress, she went off, made a call and returned to say he might not be here till ten. I was tempted to, not shoot, but at least be sad in front of the messenger. Instead, I held my head high, paid the (not cheap) bill (plus generous tip) and promised to return.
Ten days later, I did. And this time I’d phoned Edward and told him specifically which day I was arriving. He assured me he’d be there. Unfortunately I hadn’t told anyone else I was going so with seven o’clock looming it looked like I was to dine alone in an Armenian restaurant for the second time in two weeks. Once might be unlucky but twice would be careless.
Amazingly, with two quick phonecalls I managed to persuade Mat and Chip, my two brothers, and Morri, Mat’s fiancée, to join me. It seems that people who aren’t trying to locate every nationality in the world in one city have more free time than people who are.
So, as dusk settled in, the four of us trooped down to the Guards hotel, I insisted this was definitely the right place and, to my surprise and delight, we were greeted by a grinning Edward and some real-life euro-pop melodies pumped out by a brilliantly Russian looking young man with a pencil thin moustache and a classic Casio keyboard. This was going to be a good night.
Edward himself, it seemed, was touched not only that I had returned so soon, but that this time I had brought my entire family with me and after poring over the menu once again and plumping for Khachapury (‘cheese bread straight from the oven’), Bliny S. Miasom with Yaitsa Farshirovannie (‘black caviar’) and, at last, the Chicken Tapaka (squashed chicken), I was invited to join him at his table.
Edward used to be a chef in Armenia. ‘I’m now forty two and manager of the only Armenian restaurant in London!’ he proclaimed with pride. He set it up thirteen years ago after he and his wife had come to stay with his mother–in-law. ‘It was a big decision, but cooking was my job. I thought I’d try it. Why not?’
I couldn’t think of a reason why not.
‘We don’t need to advertise’, he told me when I managed to explain that I’d never heard of his restaurant without being too rude. ‘All the former soviet countries come here. We used to advertise in Russian papers but we soon found that word of mouth was better. There are so many Russians in this area – there are Russian and Armenian churches on Bayswater Road. Everyone is here.’
And so its reputation has grown alongside London’s eastern European population and Erebuni, especially on a Friday, is now a flourishing restaurant in a very wealthy part of town; no tourist trap, cheesy themed gaffe, but a real hidden gem, an authentic treat, off the beaten track, a place the guidebooks won’t tell you above, and all those other gapyear clichés. Exactly the sort of place and person we were hoping to discover with this project.
It’s a magnet for celebrities too, with the likes of David Kronenburg and that bloke Viggo Mortensen from The Lord of the Rings paying regular visits, as well as countless famous Russian singers whose faces you can see on the tremendous Erebuni website (watch out for the widest moustache in the world ever).
Edward was proud to explain the democratic approach he takes to his menu. ‘We started off taking what’s good about Russian cooking and putting our own Armenian spin on it’, he told me. ‘Then if (not ‘when’ this time) people didn’t like something we’d take it off the menu and replace it with something else. We did that for years. Now it’s 100% perfect!’ I like this trial and error style of cuisine. I guess it’s pretty much how I do comedy.
What’s the best food, I asked him. ‘Kebab’, he said with a laugh. ‘We do it differently from the Greeks or the Arabs – we use natural charcoal; come and look!’ And with that he whisked me into the kitchens where I felt genuinely honoured to be shown a thoroughly blackened barbecue with, yes, lots of natural coal. ‘Very nice!’ I remarked. Not necessarily the best response but I’d never been in this situation before.
After some awkward introductions to a couple of his chefs (Edward is now strictly the manager and so seems to spend his evenings at the bar, being the perfect host, smiling a lot) I returned to my family to enjoy the food, music and ambience. This was Friday night, unrecognizable from the previous Monday. The tables were full and glasses were clinking and as soon as we’d polished our plates, up trotted Edward with a tray of straight vodkas (except one that was cranberry flavoured – for the lady). We raised our glasses, shouted ‘Kenaset’ (Armenian for cheers), downed our drinks and winced. Edward insisted that we wouldn’t have headaches in the morning because there was no water in the drinks and the vodka was 40% alcohol and that’s the ideal amount which meant we definitely wouldn’t get hangovers but we weren’t convinced.
Not that we cared. We were having a lot of Armenian-style fun that culminated when Edward grabbed the microphone from the moustachioed pianist and sang quite a lengthy song for us in his native tongue. Chip thought it might have been an elaborate Happy Birthday but Edward breathlessly explained afterwards that it was a ‘Prison Song’. I don’t really know what a Prison Song was but apparently ‘all Russians like them’. I liked it too. Except for when Edward loomed worryingly close to the table and I thought I was going to have to join him on stage. Luckily he was just picking up Morri’s fallen umbrella – a particularly slick move mid rousing chorus.
Thinking back, though, if he had asked me to sing I think I would have. I’d have done whatever Edward wanted. He was great. We all posed for photos with him on our out and I’m really hoping we’ll make the ‘friends’ page on his website some day soon.
*As recommended by a man called Peter Pereira who read about us on the Londonist website. Thank you Peter. And thank you the Londonist website. You’ve made someone (me) very happy (and full).