71 Arlington St., Watertown
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; closed on Sunday
Has it really been 15 years since Avedis and Seta Najarian opened Ararat Restaurant, also known as ''Ararat House of Barbecue?" Even Seta herself, who is 51, finds the passage of time hard to believe.
''I was young when we opened," she marvels. ''Now I'm getting old!"
Armenians raised in Lebanon, the Najarians named their restaurant after Armenia's Mount Ararat, the mythical resting place of Noah's ark. Maps of Armenia on the dining room walls and a pretty hand-painted mural of Mount Ararat pay tribute to their heritage.
''Authentic Armenian gourmet food" is how the Najarians describe their cooking, which covers a traditional lineup of Middle Eastern specialties: kibbe (a mix of ground lamb and bulgur), lahmejune (often referred to as Armenian pizza), moujaddara (a blend of lentils and rice), falafel, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, and chicken, beef, and lamb kebabs. Ararat also prides itself on its rotisserie chicken, called farrouj, served with zesty garlic sauce.
Watertown is well known, of course, for its Armenian markets and food shops, most of which are clustered on a stretch of Mount Auburn Street nicknamed Little Armenia. Ararat is situated apart from that cluster in a neglected-looking brick building. The dining room seats 40, but most of the restaurant's business is takeout, which Seta considers a reflection of modern society. ''When I first came here 15 years ago, people used to sit down," she recalls. ''People have no time to sit down now."
There's another possible reason why so many customers order their food to go -- and I mean this in the kindest way -- it may be the restaurant's lack of ambiance. The bare-bones dining room needs sprucing up. A renovation may take place this fall, but until then it's a no-frills place with old tables, a battered tile floor, and a fading over-the-counter menu board. ''It is worn, unfortunately," Seta acknowledges, ''but, like everything, it ages."
The quality of the food can be uneven, but the highs outweigh the lows. That rotisserie chicken (half, $5.50; whole, $8; dinner with rice and salad, $12) is a highlight of the menu. Its crispy skin crackles with flavor, and the meat is moist and boldly seasoned. Same for the chicken kebabs (roll-up, $4.99; dinner, $7.50), which are marinated in lemon, garlic, salt, pepper, and a blend of Armenian spices similar to allspice. The beef and lamb kebabs (roll-up, $5; dinner, $8) are steeped in a slightly different marinade, one that's made without garlic but has lively peppery bite. The kebabs tilt toward the dry side, but their flavor is top-notch.
The hummus ($4), a creamy chicken pea mash, tastes strongly of tahini and lemon, and I like it very much. Vegetarian stuffed grapes leaves ($4), called yalanji, are filled with rice tinted red with tomato paste and have just the right dose of tang. I'm also a fan of the beoreg ($2), a very soft, bready turnover filled with spinach and feta. The falafel (roll-up, $4.50; dinner, $7.50) are nicely done; they've got crunchy exteriors and salty interiors, and taste great dipped in the paprika-sprinkled hummus. The lahmejune ($8) are quite good, too, and, in an interesting twist, they're rolled like crepes, not served flat like pancakes.
The bland, dry kibbe ($8), however, tastes too much like bulgur wheat and not enough like ground lamb. Losh kebab, a spicy hamburger sausage, is also too dry. The pickled turnips in the roll-ups taste fine, but they quickly turn the pita soggy, making the sandwiches mushy. Meanwhile, the moujaddara (roll-up, $5; plate, $7.50), made with black lentils, could use more seasoning.
For dessert, Ararat -- which, by the way, has a beer and wine license -- makes two kinds of baklava, one diamond-shaped and one shaped like lady fingers. Both contain the same ingredients, including lots of rich butter, but I prefer the delicate lady finger variety, which holds together better than the diamonds.