364 Townline Road, Mundelein, (847) 566-9755, restaurantararat.com
Cuisine: Foods of Armenia, Russia and elsewhere in the Caucasus
Setting: Pleasant, cozy restaurant in a strip mall on Route 60, east of Route 83
Price range: Appetizers: $2.50 to $9.99; entrees $5.99 to $16.99; desserts $3.50 to $3.99
Hours: Noon to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays
Accepts: Reservations, major credit cards
Also: Beer and wine served; free parking; lunch specials, noon to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; delivery available
Oleg and Lily Melkumyan launched their Mundelein restaurant almost two years ago, but word has been slow in spreading. That's a pity, because the cuisines served in this cozy spot are still rare in these parts, despite what the numbers of Russian-speaking cabdrivers in the suburbs might lead one to hope.
Named for the mountain that symbolizes home to the Armenian people (though present-day geopolitics puts it in Turkey), Ararat serves a mix of foods from across the former Soviet Union, not only the Melkumyans' Armenian homeland, but also Russia, Uzbekistan, Georgia and elsewhere in the Caucasus and surrounding regions.
Oleg Melkumyan, who learned his craft in restaurants back home before the couple emigrated 10 years ago, handles the cooking, while his charming wife runs the little dining room. His specialty is well-seasoned kebabs, cooked over charcoal.
On the appetizer list, I can recommend the eggplant named for the city of Van, Armenia. The chilled, roasted, chopped eggplant combines with onion, tomato, bell pepper, black pepper, garlic, parsley and other herbs to addictive effect. It's one of a variety of chilled, Armenian-style salads and spreads. You'll also find red beans with walnuts Karmir Lobio; pickled vegetables Dilijian, shrimp cocktail, cheese and meat platters and house-made hummus.
Hot starters include khachapuri, a Georgian specialty featuring a crisp and flaky pastry crust filled with three kinds of cheese - feta, mozzarella and provolone - served hot and deliciously melted. Another appetizer pie, samsa, hails from Uzbekistan and features a sturdier but equally flavorful crust, wrapped around savory ground lamb.
Other openers include piroshki with assorted fillings, blintzes wrapped around meat or cheese, oysters, crab cakes and a daily house-made soup.
As at many Eastern European restaurants, Ararat's written menu tends to be more extensive than the contents of its larder, listing a cross-section of the chef's repertoire, including dishes available only seasonally, rather than detailing just what they're serving on any given day. There might, moreover, be some additional dishes not written down, so be flexible, and ask what's good when you get there or call ahead if your heart's set on something in particular.
Sometimes things work out better than you expect. Lamb naturally comes to mind when you think of the Caucasus, and I felt unlucky when they were out of both lamb chops and kebabs the day we visited.
If they'd had the lamb, though, we probably would never have ordered the pork shish kebab Ashtarak, and we'd have missed out on a really first-rate dish, a generous skewer of meat, tender and juicy, permeated with herbal marinade and given a lightly smoky charred edge.
Besides lamb and pork, the menu offers kebabs of beef, chicken breast, shrimp and beef liver. Other main dishes include chicken Kiev and several types of dumplings, including pelmeni, a traditional Siberian dish. These little ear-shaped rounds of meat-filled dough don't look like much, but the tiny, tender morsels, served in buttery-tasting jus, pack huge amounts of flavor.
Beverages include beer, wine and routine sodas, plus tea and Armenian coffee.
The menu promises that Armenian pastries are sometimes available, but the only dessert the kitchen had to offer when we visited was an unlisted special of smetanik, a Russian chocolate layer cake whose name translates as "sour cream-ish" for its rich icing, slathered around slightly dry cake with a thin layer of berry jam.