It’s hard not to feel a twinge of sentimental joy when newlyweds hit the dance floor, the bride aglow in an embroidered white gown, the groom ceremonious in a dark suit. This isn’t a reception, though; they’ve just stepped into Carousel for a bite. And I’m not making small talk but scooping muhammara, a tingly hot paste of ground walnuts and pomegranate, from a bowl. A vast room on Brand Boulevard with scimitars and brass trays on the walls, Carousel is as generous with scenes as it is with portions (see a photo tour of the restaurant). During a weekday lunch or dinner, the room buzzes with conversation as people nibble on platters of farmhouse cheese, pink-hued pickled turnips, and tight-fleshed green Syrian olives. But on Friday and Saturday nights it becomes a show. The ornately carved wood screens disappear, and tables are pushed together for the celebratory groups. You might be sitting beside a party speaking Tagalog who yelp as belly dancers swirl or next to older couples who come to dance arm in arm. When the house band launches into a slow Arabic number, the mere hint of rose water in a ball of ice cream can take you far away.
Lots of cuisines in L.A. have a nostalgia about them, the sense that a little bubble has been created in the space-time continuum. Something as casual as a bright window trim can define a place where the old country exists within the new. For me, Armenian is different because there is often an extra layer at work: Having fled a war-tattered nation in the Caucasus, Armenians spread through Russia, Iran, Greece, Lebanon, and other countries, filtering their cuisine through the local customs along the way. The food is direct, clean in its lines, built on tradition (OK, also on garlic), but infused with elements of the adopt-ed homeland.
It’s a complex heritage that many restaurants boil down to “Mediterranean,” the sun-dappled connotations shimmering above darker depths. The Tcholakian family came to the United States in 1977 because snipers were keeping them from tending to their sandwich shop in Beirut’s Bourj Hamoud neighborhood. They settled into the crowded East Hollywood streets between Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards. It was a tough beginning for Rose and Krikor (she goes by “Madame Rose”; he, by “Baron Koko”) and their young son, Mike. Back then, way before the salumi craze, Krikor would hang loins of the curing basturma in the sitting room of their modest two-bedroom, using floor fans to replicate the weather in the mountains of Armenia. They opened the original Carousel in a strip mall at Hollywood and Normandie in December 1984; it’s been there ever since—a low-key institution in the area where Thai Town and Little Armenia come together like interlocking fingers. Today Carousel’s competition is as stiff as it’s ever been. Next door a stir-fry-serving nook with live music offers happy hour shots of Johnnie Walker, and the Cajun shrimp joint at the corner has a clamoring terrace. In that environment you don’t want to be the overlit spot with the tufted nylon napkins.
So Mike and his wife, Rosalie, recently finished a remodel of the no-frills space, warming up the room with earth tones and an aged-wood floor. It’s still one of those standbys where you can get them to cater a take-out meal for 40 with scant warning. Come dusk, or even on a Saturday morning, there are people heading to the parking lot with foil containers stacked high. But you can also linger, if not over wine—nearby Marouch is where you go for Lebanon’s famed Château Musar—but over a cool glass of yogurt tun and some hummus with a heap of sizzling sujuk, a sausage of coarsely ground beef that splits open like blood pudding.
The Glendale Carousel debuted in 1998, with peaked Moorish windows, murals of Roman ruins, and busboys clad in double-vented tunics signaling its position as the flagship. Of course Madame Rose’s Lebanese-inflected recipes provide the anchor. There are family-style options, cumin-dusted veal liver kabobs, meat pies, chopped cabbage salad speckled with dried mint, curd-filled boregs, steaming falafel, and mounds of fluffy bulgur with tender chickpeas. This is classic Armenian-style mezze dining, where small plates lead to big ones, waiters always find room on the crowded tablecloth for the latest morsel, and the spreading selection allows for the most satisfying kind of mixing and matching. A drop of the spicy sauce served with the spinach-stuffed fried kofta ovals lends a pleasant zing to the yogurt salad known as jajek. Sliced thin, the basturma releases its salt-cured intensity (Carousel doesn’t use fenugreek, so it seems even more forceful) when tossed onto a hot pita. It’s kind of like when lardo hits toasted focaccia at a better Italian restaurant, except there the waiter isn’t igniting the skewered meatball sujuk flambé with a point-and-click flame.
Here all is variety, the antithesis of the austere single-page modern menu in which the entries read like an MFA’s poem in a lit journal. It’s as though the family was reluctant to leave out a single option. You can savor the French influence on Beirut—once called “the Paris of the Middle East”—in the battered frog legs provençale or a trio of quail in a citrusy amber lacquer that tastes like a sumac-jacked sauce à l’orange. There’s not just one tabbouleh but two: In the more Lebanese version, chopped tomatoes, parsley, lemon juice, and olive oil are all the moisture that’s needed to give the cracked wheat—the essential starch in many preparations—its trademark short-of-soft texture; the more Armenian version gets its deep red hue from a sofrito of tomatoes and onions and gains a whole other dimension when mixed with a spoonful of tahini-radiating baba ghanouj.
If you’re unfamiliar with kibbeh (the word means “ground and molded” in Arabic), you won’t be by the time you leave Carousel. Cumin and lemon give a terrific angularity to the lentil kibbeh. Sautéed onions evoke home-fries in the bite-size kibbeh batata, which are based on oven-roasted potatoes. Boiled and delicate as dumplings, the kibbeh maklieh are shaped like eggs, a dainty cracked wheat “shell” hiding an interior of tender beef studded with pine nuts. Splash them with lemon, a little minced curly parsley, and they practically light up. The kibbeh nayyeh, a Lebanese steak tartare, is a delicious paradox. Stretched out on the plate and ringed by what is almost a pico de gallo, the lean ground beef gets a dash of cracked wheat for texture, while a potent Lebanese Koura olive oil brings out a nutty quality in the flesh.
Olive oil has a similar effect in the hummus, without being so pronounced that it does anything other than augment the higher-pitched sesame oil. Nobody in this kitchen is squirting a cold first pressing over plates just to make them glisten; olive oil here always has a purpose. Where some places tend to drench eggplant in olive oil, which can reduce moussaka into a grease bomb, Carousel’s is a concentrated blend of eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes that clings to a pita chip the way a good jam sits on the back of a spoon. The kitchen also holds off on cream to add body to the signature lentil soup; instead Madame Rose’s recipe calls for chicken stock (or, during Lent, water) and for cooking the split red lentils with yellow onion long enough for them to fall apart naturally.
More than once I’ve asked friends where to find the best Armenian food only to be told, “in my mother’s kitchen.” At Carousel there’s certainly a maternal touch—a way of indulging without overdoing it—that brings you close to the home stove. (“Just like Mom’s” reads the note for those boiled kofta.) Of course, in a busy restaurant that hosts a floor show to boot, only so much domesticity is possible. Would the chicken shawarma be better with a sizzling crust? Sure. And do the desserts give you a full, comfort-food hug? Not always. No amount of crushed pistachios will make an Oreo fudge delight seem like a good fit, and although some ashta selections are very good—the slow-thickened cream perfumed with orange blossom water is lush under a honey-drizzled crown of that angel-hair-like pastry known as kataifi—to me this isn’t one of those occasions where dessert is that meaningful. There’s still coffee to be poured from engraved brass pots, maybe a shot of cloudy arak liqueur, and a lot more conversation to enjoy.
In mezze dining the sweet course is more pit stop than finish line. The scrum of the ritual, the crackle of energy in the room, the sense of heritage cooking—these are the reasons I come to Carousel. On a busy weeknight people like to eat on the terrace along Brand. The doors have been flung wide open. There are bottles of Lebanese Almaza beer on the tables, patrons cautiously trying jallab, a drink made with grape molasses and dates, for the first time. Others pass around spinach-filled fatayer pastries, as your tablemate makes a play for the last stuffed grape leaf on the saucer. It’s a life-affirming experience. Somehow no one needs the mural of the ruins of Tyre to be transported. A breeze and a flapping striped awning will do.
304 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, 818-246-7775
Best dishes: Kibbeh nayyeh (Lebanese steak tartare), basturma, boiled kofta, lentil soup, quail with sumac, cabbage salad, lula kebab,
Drinks: Full bar, Kotayk beer, yogurt tun, jallab, a few Lebanese wines
Atmosphere: Convivial to exultant
Noise level: Loud, with a live band and dancing on Friday and Saturday nights
Kid friendly? Yes
Price range: $3.95 (lentil soup) to $26.95 (charbroiled lamb chops)
Hours: Tue.-Thu.: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.-Sat.: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. (show runs past midnight). Sun.: 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Parking: Metered parking
Reservations: Required on Friday and Saturday nights
Credit cards: All major