Humming for More Hummus: Two Alluring Boston-area finds

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By Nancy Kalajian
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BOSTON — Two very different Mediterranean-Middle Eastern food establishments have recently made their mark in the Boston area. Both have experienced, Armenian-rooted chefs at their helm, but their venues are as diverse as two chickpeas lovingly perched on top of a dish of homemade hummus.

Take Seta’s Mediterranean Foods. Chef Seta Dakessian makes a wonderful assortment of tasteful appetizers and salads and sells them at Boston-area farmer’s markets.

Using local products from local farms, her motto, “Fresh Food, Simply Made,” says it all. She cooks nearly every day of the week and sells eight-ounce containers of assorted delights like babaganoush, lentil salad, beet salad, vegetarian grape leaves and Armenian potato salad, ranging in price from $4 to $5 to a curious mix that on any one day might include office workers, students, senior citizens and stay-at-home moms or dads; many are repeat customers.

Chef Seta’s lunch specials vary from week to week and often sell out quickly; I watched as she sold the last babaganoush and metch combo ($7.50) and quickly wrote “sold out” on a brightly appointed board stretched out on a long table.

“Metch is traditionally eaten in lettuce leaves. Eetch is a Turkish word and metch is the Armenian word,” shared Dakessian, and continued, “I personally make it a meal by adding a dollop of hummus or babganoush to the metch in lettuce leaves and then adding fresh tomatoes and lemon cucumbers.”

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This enthusiastic chef can be found in the afternoons through the third week of November at local farmers’ markets in the greater Boston area: on Mondays at Boston City Hall Plaza, Tuesdays at Copley Square, Wednesdays at Davis Square in Somerville, and Thursdays at Dewey Square near South Station.

The food business runs in this chef’s family; her parents owned Aris Armenian Bakery and Café on Elm Street in Worcester for more than 20 years. Her dad hails from Jerusalem and her grandfather, Hagop Dakessian, was a baker in the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem decades ago. Her mom, a seamstress by trade, hails from Lebanon.

After attending the Johnson and Wales Culinary School in Providence, RI, Dakessian worked at the upscale Rialto in Cambridge, Mass., as well as Aqua at the St. Regis Resort at Monarch Beach, between Los Angeles and San Diego.

Her future plans include opening a retail store in the Boston area.

Dakessian’s barley salad was refreshingly pleasing on a warm summer’s day. The hummus and babaganoush are lovingly made daily in a shared kitchen in Jamaica Plain. The hummus is a standout — smooth with a mellow blend of ginger and lemon, and it’s no wonder that hundreds of containers are sold each week.

Staff from Garlic’n Lemons served samples at A Taste of Allston, a benefit for the Allston Village Main Streets. From left, Irfan Usman, Rozetta Helvadjian, Mardig Helvadjian, and Aram Orchanian. (Photo by N. Kalajian)

Yearning for more homemade hummus led me to Garlic’n Lemons, a small café that opened this past April on Harvard Avenue in the Allston neighborhood of Boston. The hummus here is amazing, in a subtle, smooth style. With owner Rozetta Helvadjian (also known as Mama Rosie or Rosie) and her sons, Mardig and Ara, leading the way, business is booming with many repeat customers lining up for a taste of their exotic, freshly-made cuisine. Though Chef Rosie’s mom (with roots in Hadjin) didn’t formally teach her the many Armenian and Lebanese recipes she has now mastered, Rosie Helvadjian knew just how certain food should taste, and therefore adjusted the recipes until the exact taste from her childhood struck a chord. This is what she presents to her customers who seem to appreciate the consistent, fresh and homemade quality they encounter.

“Cooking is my life!” said Helvadjian, as she reminisced about Wadi Restaurant in Watertown, which she owned for three years.

Surprisingly, she doesn’t seem to mind having very little free time. “I don’t mind because I love it and enjoy what I’m doing. If you do something with love, especially the food, with all your heart, the food will taste better. You have to love what you’re doing,” she said. “I love to see people eating and see that they’re happy.”

Working long hours like his mother, usually an average of 120 hours each week, Mardig Helvadjian has become a master creator of various types of shawerma, including chicken, spicy chicken and a combo of lamb and beef. Bedros Helvadjian, whom Rosie and Mardig worked with previously at Aceituna Café in Kendall Square in Cambridge, taught Mardig how to make shawermas, and the tender and luscious results say it all. The spicy chicken shawerma plate ($8.99) came with rice pilaf, a choice of salad (I can’t wait to have more of their freshly- made, lightly tongue-tingling tabouleh) and a garlic sauce that looked like a large scoop of white yogurt but looks can be deceiving: here the eggs, canola oil, mashed potatoes, vinegar, salt, lemon and garlic combine to create a sauce that has hatched a culinary haven in Allston. The falafel wrap-up on wheat sadj has sliced pickles, lettuce, tomatoes and homemade pickled turnip and tahini sauce for $5.50.

Also employed at Garlic’n Lemons is butcher Jerry Moumjian, who worked previously in West Roxbury, and Aram Orchanian, whose photographs adorn the café’s yellow walls.

When they were brainstorming names for their new café, “Mama Rosie” was one choice until Mardig exclaimed, “What do you want, garlic and lemon?” “Yes!” shouted Rosie, and the restaurant’s name was born. With great gusto, the family hopes to open more small shops in the Boston area in the future.

Though the settings for their businesses may be different, Chef Rosie and Chef Seta seem to be making their marks in Boston’s culinary circles with distinctive homemade offerings, business acumen and hard work. Two (chick) peas in a large Armenian (and American) pod; watch them grow.