Chello Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver Stands in Front of Chello Grill Mediterranean Cuisine on Cutler

Persian cuisine has been described as “poetry on a plate” and “a pretext to break into verse.”  Persian history is replete with a large repertoire of literary quotes about food and drink.  Even when the subject of a poem wasn’t about food, a poet’s appreciation for Persian cuisine often inspired the inclusion of culinary terms.  Take for example fifteenth-century Persian poet Bu-Isaq of Shiraz who described his beloved as: “lithe as a fish, eyes like almonds, lips like sugar, a chin like an orange, breasts like pomegranates, a mouth like a pistachio” and so forth.”

“Surely,” I thought, “contemporary poets can also be inspired to put to verse and song their sentiments about the loves of their lives using food in descriptive terms.  Diligent searches revealed that the twain apparently doesn’t cross.  I did, however, find an inspiring poem by Grammy award-winning hip-hop artist Busta Rhymes who pays tribute to his favorite food (and one of mine): “Mrs. Fried Chicken you was my addiction. Dripping with high cholest- Like Greeks with his falafel, Italian with his to-mato pasta. What roti is to a rasta. Trapping me; You and your friend mac’ and cheese. Candy yams, collard greens but you knocking me to my knees…”

Skewered Meats and Vegetables

My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” and I were nearly inspired to break into verse and song ourselves the minute we walked into Chello Grill and espied a shaker of sumac, a rich red colored spice with a bright lemony flavor.  We’ve both been known to lament the relative meagerness of sumac on Persian and Middle Eastern foods we enjoy.  Even though it’s considered an essential ingredient in cooking throughout the region, all too often it’s used in moderation (at least by our standards).   We knew we’d like the Chello Grill the moment we discovered that shaker of sumac.  It gave us confidence that other Persian spices we love on Persian cuisine–cardamom, saffron, garlic, turmeric and yes, even cumin–would be used in the preparation of dishes we would soon be enjoying.

There’s much to like about the Chello Grill, the brainchild of the entrepreneurial duo of Hasan Aslami and Behrad Etemadi who are becoming quite the restaurant impresarios in the Duke City and beyond.  Several years ago they created Pizza 9, a burgeoning franchise  named by  Franchise Business Review  among its “best of the best,” one of the top 200 franchises in America for 2016.  Hoping to duplicate the success they had with Pizza 9, they plan to franchise Chello Grill with the goal of expanding across the Southwest.  The Chello Grill is located in the Pavilions at San Mateo shopping center, occupying the storefront which once housed Boston Market.

Chello Doh: Chicken Kabob, Sheesh Kabob, Rice and Vegetables

The Chello Grill operates much like a cafeteria.  Instead of taking your seat at a vacant table, you’ll walk up to the counter where you’ll undoubtedly gaze longingly at the skewers and vegetables under glass before deciding whether to have Chello Yek (one kabob and one side), Chello Doh (two kabobs and two sides) or Chello Seh (three kabobs and two sides).  Chello, by the way, comes from the Farsi word for rice.  Rice is indeed a prominent part of every meal as is naan, a fresh-baked flat bread more closely associated with Indian cuisine. Available kabobs include koobideh, ground meat seasoned with minced onion, salt and pepper; chicken seasoned with turmeric, paprika, sumac, salt, garlic and several other spices; and shish kabob, skewered beef along with mushrooms, onions, tomatoes and peppers.

Both Bruce and I enjoyed the chicken kabob above all else.  The characteristic yellowish hue courtesy of turmeric is punctuated by the characteristic char of a grill.  The chicken straddles the fine line between being moist and juicy and being on the desiccated side.  A little more either way and it wouldn’t be quite as enjoyable.  All too often the shish kabob served in Persian and Middle Eastern restaurants tends to be on the dry side, courtesy of too much time spent on a grill that’s too hot.  Not so at the Chello Grill where the grilled beef is moist and delicious.  So are the grilled vegetables.  A large mound of rice, more than one person can eat, completes the plate.

Top: Naan; Bottom: Mast O Khiar (Cucumber & Yogurt Dip) and Hummus

Our sides ranged from very good (the mirza ghasemi, a grilled eggplant and tomato dip with plenty of garlic) to good (mast o khiar, a cucumber and yogurt dip similar to Greek tzadziki) to unremarkable (a rather dry hummus).  The freshly baked naan is much larger than its Indian restaurant counterpart and quite a bit crispier.  Roughly the size of a medium pizza, it goes well with any of the sides, but is just too crispy to use “sandwich style” with the kabobs. 

Service at Chello Grill is exceptional with a friendly and attentive staff at your beck and call.  As with Pizza 9, the Chello Grill recognizes the value of customer orientation and good value.  Don’t be surprised if this Persian treasure expands similar to its elder sibling and that someday an inspired poem will rhapsodize about that chicken kabob.

Chello Grill
5010 Cutler Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 881-2299
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 27 June 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chicken Kabob, Sheesh Kabob,  Mast O Khiar, Naan, Mirza Ghasemi

Chello Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 8 October 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Lamb Chops, Russian Borscht, Beef Stroganoff, Aura Appetizer Plate

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