The New York Times fall restaurant preview issue had a Glenn Collins puff piece about “foreign” restaurateurs aiming to succeed in New York, headlined by Dr. Miguel Sanchez Romera, whose eponymous Romera was one of the quickest flops on record.
Let’s fervently wish better luck to the second restaurant that Collins named, Al Mayass, imported from Lebanan, but run by Armenians and serving the cuisine of both nations. The original Al Mayass opened in Beirut in 1997, with branches today in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Qatar, Riyadh, and now New York.
After much googling, I’m still not sure what the name means. The website says, “The essence of Almayass is best described ‘…when the hanging leaves dance to the rhythm of delicate breeze.’” The logo resembles a falling leaf, so perhaps that’s what it means.
The restaurant also has a tagline, credited to George Bernard Shaw. You’ll see it in the vestibule and on the menu: “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” Thanks, guys, for clearing that up.
They spent $2 million on the build-out of a space that had been vacant for eight years; but they neglected to spend much outside. The entrance is so inconspicuous, I walked by twice before finding it.
Fortunately I was persistent.
Once you’re inside Al Mayass is lovely, with a spacious and elegant 80-seat dining room that could double as a modern art gallery. There’s a comfortable, but fung shui-challenged lounge: you have to pass through the back of the restaurant and take an abrupt u-turn to reach it.
Small plates, or mezzes, make up the bulk of the menu. There are about four dozen of them, divided into two groups, hot and cold, in a price range from $4–17 (but most around $8–15). There are about ten entrées ($22–34), most of them kebabs of various sorts.
When the mezzes outnumber the entrées four to one, it comes across as a signal to skip the entrées, and so we did. Five of the mezzes was about the right amount for two people—perhaps even a shade more than we needed.
There are fourteen wines by the glass and around a hundred by the bottle, mostly international, but including a few Lebanese ones. You can spend under $40 or hundreds. A 2007 Barolo was a bargain at $70. At first the staff said they were out of it, but then the manager found a bottle, for which I was charged just $38.
The bread service (above left) included pita and crackers with a dipping sauce. The first of our mezzes was the Soujuk Almayass ($11; above right), an appealing Armenian beef sausage canapé served cold, and topped with fried quail eggs.
Suberg ($8; above left) is an enjoyable oven-baked homemade cheese pastry. Sarma ($9.50; above left), or grape leaves, wrapped with rice and vegetables, were about average.
The Queen’s Delight ($16; above left) offered sliced filet mignon, sautéed in a sweet & sour cherry sauce that made more of an impression than the meat did. Mantee Traditional ($15; above right) consists of large ravioli filled with ground meat and a yogurt sauce, topped with sumac, a shrub frequently used as a spice in Greek cuisine.
Gael Greene visited Al Mayass on opening night — why on earth does she keep doing that? — and found slow, inattentive service. Our visit came a few weeks in, and we had the opposite problem. The five mezzes came rather quickly, and all at once, which is hardly the best way to appreciate them. The food seemed to me about average, though I think it would have made a better impression if it had been presented at a slower pace.
To Al Mayass’s credit, the food is relatively inexpensive, and the dining room is both quiet and comfortable. Business wasn’t bad on a Thursday evening, although it was not full. If they could only get the hang of pacing a meal, Al Mayass could be very good.
Al Mayass (24 E. 21st St. between Broadway & Park Avenue, Flatiron District)
Food: Traditional Lebanese/Armenian, with an emphasis on small plates
Service: Friendly but too fast
Ambiance: A comfortable, upscale, modern room with tablecloths
Why? We’re not persuaded it’s a destination, but worth a look if you’re nearby