7540 Universal Blvd. | 407-351-3131 | ararateuro.mobicrystalsites.mobi | $$
It’s not uncommon to uncover culinary treasures in the least welcoming of corners in our city. What is uncommon is to find a restaurant serving up exceptional Russian and Eastern European fare from such dark, uninviting recesses. The recess in this case – a retail center on the corner of Universal Boulevard and Carrier Drive – was once anchored by Sleuth’s, but since the mystery dinner show found greener pastures on I-Drive, the strip mall seems even more neglected. But pay no heed to the shuttered storefronts or the condition of the parking lot; just listen for the faint sounds of thumping Euro disco and walk in through the doors of Ararat Bistro.
Yes, there’s a big speaker near the entrance blaring the best of the Tbilisi nightclub scene, and two flat-screen TVs project only the most mesmerizing of post-Soviet ethno-dance music videos, but, strangely, it all works. From the menu in Cyrillic script to the young waitresses and their broken English, Ararat is one of those places that make you forget you’re in Orlando. It’s really a testament to the owners (one’s Armenian, the other Ukrainian) and their efforts to replicate a little slice of home, and it stretches beyond the kitchen too. Walk next door to the fully stocked grocery and you’ll see an impressive array of foods ranging from caviar to headcheese, and a variety of wines from the Caucasus. We stocked up on a few items before leaving, but not before gorging ourselves on an exceptional meal that started off with traditional, and simple, cold herring fillets with boiled potato ($7). The appetizer plate is a meal in itself, but our Russian waitress insisted we sample the pelmeni ($6), boiled Russian-style dumplings filled with seasoned minced meat, and we’re glad we did. The pirozhki ($2), however, may have been our favorite. The oven-baked buns come stuffed with a filling of ground beef, potatoes and cabbage, and we remarked on how perfect they’d be for breakfast. Be sure to ask for a side of the tomato-based dipping sauce.
As we gawked at the risqué music videos and sampled Armenian pomegranate wine ($10) and Baltika porters ($4), we contemplated our selection of mains. We put an order in for the tapaka ($15) first, given the 20-minute cook time required to prepare this butterflied, pan-seared Cornish hen. When it arrived, there was a fair amount of begging on my part before my wife relented and permitted me a few rips into this crispy fowl. The dish came served with fries that resembled proper English chips.
A trio of peppers ($10) stuffed with a mix of rice and ground meat were more herbaceous than expected, though still enjoyable. Kebabs comprise a good chunk of the grilled entrees, and the cubes of marinated Australian lamb ($15) couldn’t have been more tender or pliant. We chose sauerkraut as our side, a mistake; we probably should’ve gone with one of their many potato sides.
The “Russian-style” Napoleon cake ($3) is less flaky and more dense than a traditional mille-feuille, but just as gratifying. We also liked the Armenian honey cake ($3) – so much so that we bought a box of it from the grocery to take home.
One note: If you’re paying with a credit card, there’s no place on the receipt to leave a tip. When we asked about it, our waitress said she’d have to run our card again in the amount of the tip. Seems highly inefficient and just plain odd to do it that way, but this being Ararat, I’m probably just making a mountain out of a mole hill.