Aura European and Middle Eastern Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Aura European Mediterranean Restaurant

Countries and states may recognize borders but food doesn’t, especially today in an increasingly connected world where it’s possible to enjoy the cuisine of many of the world’s diverse and distant cultures without crossing a single border. Attribute the modern world’s dietary diversity to improved agricultural, transportation and preservation methods as well as rampant imperialism throughout the history of humankind. Consider the culinary influence of invading forces on the ancient nation of Armenia. During the course of its storied history, Armenia was invaded and occupied in succession by Persians, Byzantines, Mongols and Turks, all of whom left their mark on the cuisine.

Though we were pretty sure the menu at Aura European and Middle Eastern Restaurant in Albuquerque would offer diversity, the terms “European” and “Middle Eastern” cast a rather broad net. European, for example, could encompass Spanish tapas, Italian pastas, French crepes and so much more. Similarly Middle Eastern is a rather broad category that could describe the cuisine of several nations and cultures, not all of whom share similar palates. There is no way, we thought, any restaurant could possibly attempt such a broad brush approach to European and Middle Eastern cuisine. There’s just too much diversity to execute the concept well. A quick perusal of the menu assuaged our concerns.

The rich interior of Aura

Aura’s menu isn’t a compendium of all foods European and Middle Eastern (not even close), but it offers a nice representation of the diverse melting pot cuisine on which brothers Ash and Marat Darbinyan were raised in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. If you’ve frequented Middle Eastern restaurants, you’ll find the menu more than vaguely familiar. You’ll recognize such appetizer delicacies as hummus, dolmas and crab cake. Lunch and dinner offerings such as Beef Stroganoff, Chicken Marsala, French Onion Soup and Russian borscht will also leap out at you as familiar favorites. So, too, will grilled lamb chops, kebabs and baklava. What you might not recognize, at least by name, are the premium wraps made with lavash bread, the Russian blinchik and the shashlik (grilled and skewerered meats and vegetables).

Aura is located in the Far North Shopping Center (just east of Budai Gourmet Chinese) in the space which previously housed Athens Eclectic Greek and other restaurants. The 86-seat restaurant has a very inviting vibe tailor-made for relaxed dining. Ash runs the front of the house while Marat runs the kitchen as he once did at the long defunct Charcoal Mediterranean Grill. The brothers Darbinyan have lived in Albuquerque since 2006, but Aura is the first eatery they’ve owned. It’s the culmination of a dream they’ve long shared and for which several restaurant jobs have prepared them. With amiable, professional service and a menu sure to please the discerning palate, the brothers have the formula that portends success.

Aura Appetizer Plate

Though there are probably several yet-to-be-discovered “must have” dishes on the menu, we certainly found one during our inaugural visit.  The Aura Appetizer Plate is everything you could possibly want if you love dips.  Picture hummus, tzatziki dip, spicy feta dip and an eggplant spread, a quadrumvirate of dip deliciousness served with pita bread wedges.  What we appreciated most about the fabulous foursome is that each has a unique flavor profile–the tanginess of the tzatziki, the garlicky bite of the hummus, for example.  Our favorite is the spicy feta dip which pairs the sharp, tangy sheep’s milk cheese with sweet-spicy red peppers.  It’s a magnificent duo.  The eggplant spread (roasted eggplant, red peppers, onions, parsley, tomato paste and spices) is the most interesting and multi-faceted.

In my seven years of serving as a judge at the Roadrunner Food Bank’s annual Souperbowl event, only one intrepid restaurateur (the brilliant Kevin Bladergroen at Blades’ Bistro) has ever attempted borscht, one of the most popular soups across Eastern European nations.  There are dozens of variations, some with and some without beetroot, the ingredient which gives borscht its reddish hue.  It’s been said that borscht isn’t about ingredients, it’s about spirit (aura?).  Aura’s version is replete with finely chopped vegetables in a comforting broth and it’s served with a dollop of sour cream.  It’s reminiscent of borscht we’ve had at some restaurants (including a Bohemian cafe in Chicago) and different from others.  That, too, is encompassed in the spirit of borscht.

Russian Borscht

My first exposure to Beef Stroganoff was courtesy of the “Tree Frogs,” Peñasco’s Boy Scout Troop 512.  During a camping excursion to the Jicarita wilderness, the experienced among us crammed lightweight dehydrated foods into our backpacks.  Somehow Beef Stroganoff was among our provisions, albeit a dish no other Tree Frog would even sample.  That turned out propitious for me. Reconstituted Beef Stroganoff began a lifelong love affair with the Russian dish.  Though my Kim makes a better-than-restaurant version at home, seeing it on a restaurant’s menu rekindles my love for the dish.  Rarely do we pass up the chance to order it at restaurants if only to compare it the one we make at home. 

We had expected Aura’s rendition (tender grilled beef, yellow onion, mushrooms smothered in a sauce served with fusilli pasta) to be prepared the traditional Russian way which is with potatoes, not pasta.  As the Web site To Discover Russia explains “Beef Stroganoff is at best a vague resemblance to the original dish, and at worst – absolutely different inexpressive concoction.”  The version we make at home is with egg noodles, so we don’t exactly subscribe to tradition either.  One thing we do at home and which many recipes advocate is thoroughly smothering the noodles with a rich, creamy mushroom sauce.  Aura’s version is rather stingy with the sauce though what there is of it is tasty.

Beef Stroganoff

In 2013, the per-capita consumption of lamb among Americans was a meager one pound per person per year.  Instead, beef is what was for dinner–to the Brobdingnagian tune of sixty-one pounds per person.  As recently as 2011, the American Lamb Board reported that nearly half of American diners had never even tasted lamb.  Blame this travesty on the latest war to end all wars, when rations for American servicemen in Europe included mutton (older sheep) passed off as lamb (typically slaughtered between the ages of 4 and 12 months).  Servicemen hated the strong musky flavor of adult sheep and brought their distaste home with them.  Understandably, many of them forbade lamb from their dinner tables, resulting in generations growing up unfamiliar with the delights of real lamb. 

As an unabashed lover of lamb, it saddens me to learn that lamb is loathed, in many cases by diners who haven’t even tried it.  Sure, that leaves more for me and for enlightened diners in virtually every nation outside the fruited plain, but  passion, much like misery, loves company.  If you like lamb, but your excuse for not trying lamb is that it’s too expensive, Aura features three grilled lollipop lamb chops for under twenty dollars, far less than what you’d pay for a steak.  And if you’re phobic about its purported off-putting flavor, you’ll appreciate the well-seasoned preparation which complements without obfuscating, the distinctive, slightly gamy, more earthy flavor lf luscious lamb.  These chops are served with your choice of one side and a salad.  The grilled asparagus is an excellent complement.

Lamb Chops

In an increasingly connected world, it’s still gratifying to find there are still new and different foods to be tasted; to discover menus offering foods you’ve never heard of, much less tasted; to be titillated by different yet familiar spice combinations.  That’s what you’ll find at Aura European Mediterranean Restaurant.

Aura European Mediterranean Restaurant
6300 San Mateo Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 508-3224
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LATEST VISIT: 8 October 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Lamb Chops, Russian Borscht, Beef Stroganoff, Aura Appetizer Plate

Aura European Mediterranean Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Charcoal Mediterranean Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Charcoal Mediterranean Grill

Charcoal Mediterranean Grill

If comedian Jeff Foxworthy was Armenian, his repertoire of one-liners might include such gems as, “You know you’re Armenian if you have philo dough, string cheese or See’s candy in your freezer.”  Or perhaps, “You know you’re Armenian if you serve hummus and tabbouleh with your taco chips.”  Then there’s the classic, “You know you’re Armenian if you shovel food on other people’s plates when they aren’t looking.”  Who can forget the oft-told “You know you’re Armenian if you think pilaf is one of the four food groups.”

A quick Google of Armenian food will return results that reveal Armenian’s self-deprecating sense of humor regarding their culinary culture.  Search results will also show the culinary influence of the regions and countries neighboring the ancient nation of Armenia.   Wedged in  what has been one of the world’s most volatile–some would say unstable–regions, Armenia is at the crossroads between the Middle East, Asia. Minor and Europe.  During the course of its storied history, Armenia was invaded in succession by Persians, Byzantines, Mongols and Turks, all of whom left their mark on the cuisine.

It’s a Middle Eastern cuisine punctuated with dishes that are very aromatic and flavorful.  It is a cuisine that is not rushed, but for which great care is exercised and time is taken.  It’s a cuisine that will certainly remind you of meals you’ve had in Albuquerque’s Greek, Turkish, Lebanese and Palestinian owned restaurants.  If you think you’ve never had Armenian cuisine, a quick perusal of the menu will  assure you there’s nothing strange or foreign about it.

Hummus and Pita Chips

Hummus and Pita Chips

Charcoal Mediterranean Grill serves the traditional cuisine of Armenia.  That authenticity is assured because the yawning restaurant is owned and operated by youthful Armenian Kostan Gasparyan who knows what he’s doing on the grill.   The restaurant’s name describes its concept.  All meats and fish are prepared with mesquite charcoal–not mesquite wood or briquets that have mesquite added.  Mesquite charcoal comes from the ubiquitous Southwestern tree converted under specially controlled conditions to charcoal.     Mesquite charcoal imparts faintly smoky overtones and sweet, slightly acidic flavors that more greatly influence delicately flavored fish and poultry than it does pork, veal and beef.  Many grill chefs have been swearing by mesquite charcoal since the 1970s.

Charcoal is situated where Asado Brazilian Grill sat for nearly five years–on the backside of the Pan American frontage road’s restaurant row within easy walking distance to the Century 24 theater.  It’s a tough area for restaurants, several of whom have met an early demise in large part because they are not visible from the frontage road.  The problem is exacerbated because it’s ensconced in an area replete with chain restaurants, some with national prominence: Texas Land and Cattle, Subway, Cold Stone and further down the frontage road, Papadeux, Fuddrucker’s and Dickey’s Barbecue. Though the Duke City is very much still a town that loves its chains, in immediate proximity to Charcoal is the fabulous Cafe Jean Pierre and behind it is the Chama River Brewing Company, an excellent restaurant in its own right.

The ambience hasn’t changed significantly from the Asado days.  Charcoal has an industrial look and feel with high ceilings and exposed duct work.  Against one wall is a large wrought iron sculpture of a musical scale set against a colorful mosaic of tiles, a carry-over from Charcoal’s predecessor.  Suspended from the rafters are bedizened sun-faces, perhaps only the artist’s idea of beauty.  Sit at the wrong table and one of these menacing faces will look down on you.

Lamb chops and three sides

Lamb chops and three sides

Armenian cuisine as featured at Charcoal includes such familiar standards as shish kabob, barbecue, shawerma and falafel, all Mediterranean standards.  You’ll also see borsht, a stew-like soup that is very popular in Eastern European nations where it is served both hot and cold.  One section of the menu is dedicated to sandwich wraps which are wrapped in either pita bread or lavash, a soft, thin flatbread of Armenian origin which also serves as an excellent platform for pizza.

The menu also includes a section dedicated to kabob plates, all of which are served with four (yes, that’s four) side dishes and pita bread.  The pita bread is made on the premises and it’s served steaming.  Considering so many other Mediterranean restaurants in the area extricate their pita from hermetically sealed bags, Charcoal’s fresh pita is a real treat.

A veritable phalanx of cold and hot side orders also set Charcoal apart.  While other restaurants are parsimonious with their sides, this restaurant fills your oversized plate with very flavorful and authentic sides: mutabbal (an eggplant dip), hummus, tabouleh, dolmas, eggplant caviar, rice pilaf and corn.  Interestingly, each of these sides go for three to six dollars a piece if you order them by themselves.

Beef and lamb gyros

Beef and lamb gyros

Perhaps because there are so many sides, the menu includes only a few appetizers, one of which (the hummus) is available as a side.  Hummus is made from garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas) and is one of the world’s most versatile foods.  In Armenia as throughout the Middle East, it can be served as an appetizer, side dish or main course.  Arguably, it tastes best when scooped up with a piece of warm pita bread.   Alas, as an appetizer Charcoal’s hummus is served with crispy pita chips which just don’t cut it as well as pita bread.  The hummus, while good, could use a bit more garlic.

Charcoal is one of a handful of restaurants in the Duke City area offering lamb chops for under twenty dollars.  Discard any notions you might have of overpowering gaminess and tough cuts. Charcoal-grilled lamb is tender and succulent.  It is also quite tasty though served at about medium-well which is a bit more done than gourmet-quality lamb chops are typically served.  These chops are also quite thin, not nearly the half-inch to inch thick beauties served at premium costs elsewhere.

Mediterranean Coffee and Desserts

Mediterranean Coffee and Desserts

The gyros plate includes the thinly sliced beef and lamb amalgam carved from a perpetually rotating spit over the grill.  The meat is served outside the pita bread so you can stuff it as much as you’d like or stab it with your fork.  In either case, the tzatziki is quite good, a tangy combination of yogurt, cucumber, garlic and more.  It’s a refreshing additive to the charcoal blessed meat.

Most of the sides are quite good.  Notable are the corn niblets which don’t have an out-of-the-can taste and the pickled vegetables which have just enough tartness to get your attention without pursing your lips too much.  Desserts are all under two dollars and include baklava, sweet rolls and other desserts made with finely ground (pulverized) walnuts or pistachios, honey and phyllo dough.  Desserts are served with Mediterranean coffee which is brewed in sand on top of the charcoal grill.  It is a strong coffee, but very rich and deliciously flavored.

The Charcoal Mediterranean Grill certainly has the chops, figuratively and literally, to survive in a competitive Albuquerque restaurant market.  All it will take is for Duke City dining patrons to look beyond the Pan American frontage road for their meal options.

Charcoal Mediterranean Grill
4959 Pan American Freeway, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 7 June 2009
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Lamb Chops, Lamb & Beef Gyros, Hummus & Pita Chips, Baklava, Sweet Rolls

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