Armenian Food in New York City: Sevan Restaurant in Queens

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By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

QUEENS, N.Y. — Manhattan does not have the plethora of Armenian restaurants that diners enjoyed several decades ago, but there are still a handful of such restaurants in other parts of New York City and its suburbs. The only one in Queens is in the pleasant neighborhood of Oakland Gardens, not far from the Armenian Church of the Holy Martyrs in Bayside. It is named Sevan Armenian and Mediterranean Restaurant, and can host some 85 people at one time. The owners, a couple from Armenia, Artur Matevosyan and Karine Baghdasaryan, run a small Armenian grocery also called Sevan adjacent to the restaurant.

The restaurant provides a variety of Armenian and Middle Eastern dishes. Familiar appetizers include the cured meat pastirma/basturma, various types of dips, yalançi (stuffed grape leaves), spinach and cheese böreks, and meat pizzas called lahmejun. Main dishes such as several types of kebabs, manti (small pieces of dough stuffed with meat), Georgian khnkali (ground beef dumplings) are showcased. Russian dishes such as pelmeni dumplings, French items such as languet from tenderloin and Mediterranean foods are on the menu. Many types of meat are grilled, such as specially-marinated steaks, lamb and pork chops and quail, along with seafood such as branzini, trout and shrimp. The lule and lamb kebabs that we tried during our recent visit were tender and flavorful, as was the manti. There are occasional specials such as khash, and Matevosyan is planning on starting harissa nights.

Matevoysan explained that he brings many of his spices and herbs directly from Armenia and that this allows him to give an authentic flavor to his foods. Most of the items on the menu are made at the restaurant, though as the business expanded, some things such as lahmejun became too labor-intensive and were later obtained from others.

Tasty desserts include paklava, kadayif (walnuts in shredded dough with syrup), gata, simit cookies, helva and ice cream, and can be accompanied with Armenian or American coffee or tea. Most of the desserts are made in-house.

Although Matevosyan and Baghdasaryan are from the Republic of Armenia, they tried to incorporate into their menu foods beloved by Western Armenians and Armenians who immigrated to the US from various other countries and developed unique cuisines and tastes as a result. Baghdasaryan said, “Armenians here have come from so many different countries that they have differing cuisines and preferences, even psychologies. So it is difficult for any one Armenian restaurant to present each group with what they are seeking.” However, the two became familiar gradually with the different Armenian groups and how to cater to their requirements.

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Matevosyan and his wife came to the United States in 2000. After working for four years in Staten Island, Matevosyan heard that an Armenian bakery called Sevan was for sale in Queens. He met with the owners and decided to buy the business. Six months later, he opened a small restaurant. Gradually, as business expanded, he was able to increase the size of the restaurant, and improve its configuration and appearance. He expanded to the neighboring store, and has long term leases for both the grocery and the store now. Both he and Baghdasaryan occasionally work in the kitchen, but they also have various non-Armenian chefs and kitchen staff working for them.

Matevosyan said that in some ways it was chance that led him into the restaurant business. He graduated university in Armenia as an oenologist in 1986, and worked for six years until the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the weakening of this field in Armenia. He then worked in Dubai, did export and import work and then began opening various types of stores and boutiques in Yerevan specializing in items ranging from foods like lahmejun or börek to flowers. He came to the United States initially just to see the country, but ended up staying and working here. New York appealed to him much more than California.

Matevosyan tries to organize various types of cultural events, not just for the sake of business but for the dissemination of Armenian culture in New York. He declared, “I wish to bring together the Armenians of this area and have music and dance for them.” There is live music on Saturday evenings, though it is international, not just Armenian in nature.

Matevosyan organizes poetry evenings periodically, and when famous Armenians visit the United States, he tries to give them a forum at the restaurant. On Sunday, February 28, for example, the noted Armenian actor and writer Azad Kasparian was at the restaurant, which was at full capacity. On April 24, for the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, Matevosyan said, “I close the restaurant for regular business, have duduk music playing and offer a special lunch at a reduced rate as a day of mourning.”

Business has been good and Matevosyan has never had to advertise. Word of mouth apparently was sufficient. The grocery provides items from Armenia and various countries of the Middle East and Europe. Interestingly, produce and other things from Armenia come via California, not directly. Catering is another important aspect of Matevosyan’s work and perhaps is greater in volume than that of the restaurant and grocery combined. He and his family supply food throughout the metropolitan New York area seven days a week for all types of occasions — engagements, weddings, funerals and various types of events. Sevan Restaurant has good relations with both Armenian churches in Queens.

Sevan Restaurant is open Wednesday to Sunday for dinner starting at 5 p.m., and in addition, for lunch from 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. It is located at 216-07 Horace Harding Expressway, Oakland Gardens.

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