Arsen Karageozian is standing behind a glass case at Noor Mediterranean Grill with rows of colorful Lebanese salads, bottles of dressing, and stacks of pita in front of him. He starts to build a wrap and first stacks two rounds of pita that have been separated from one puffy round, sets them rough sides up slightly overlapping, and begins to layer. Nothing here seems haphazard. Karageozian works fast and carefully and when the sandwich is rolled up and tight, he looks satisfied.
He takes the same care with lule kebab, mounding classic fattoush salad with toasted pita next to rice pilaf simmered with golden pasta strands, with the juicy beef skewers on the side ($10.99 plus $1 extra for fattoush instead of salad).
Karageozian’s food at Noor Mediterranean Grill, a 24-seat spot he owns with his wife, Hilda Darian, could be going onto tables at a much fancier spot. The Lebanese-born Karageozian, 32, who is Armenian, cooked at a luxury Hotel InterContinental in Beirut and came to the United States after he met Darian, also 32 and Armenian, who was born and raised in Somerville close to the Powder House Square restaurant.
The two opened Noor (in Armenian, the name means pomegranate, a symbol of prosperity and fertility) in January in a former breakfast spot that needed a complete renovation. They installed vertical charbroilers for shawarma, like the intensely hot ones Karageozian used in Beirut, but the duo couldn’t put in an open fire, which they also wanted. Still, the food that comes off the gas grill has an appealing smokiness that enhances wraps and dinners.
One of the best wraps looks ordinary, but is made with saj bread, a whole-wheat round that is so thin you can almost see through it. Before he fills it, Karageozian takes the large bread, folds it into a pie-shaped wedge, tears off the lacy edges, and unwraps it just enough to keep four layers. For saj filled with falafel ($9.39), he mounds the chickpea batter onto a tiny hand-held metal pedestal, shapes the batter into a smooth round, then drops it in hot oil. Crisp, golden balls, flecked with lots of parsley, are nestled on the bread with a creamy tahini sauce and long, deliciously sour pickles. Then this extraordinary packet is griddled briefly.
Seta (pronounced seh-tah) Dakessian of Seta’s Cafe in Belmont is the gold standard of Armenian fare in this region, and Karageozian is right behind her. His citrusy tabbouli ($5.99) is mostly parsley with just enough bulgur to hold it together. Sarma, an old family recipe for stuffed grape leaves ($1.49 each), are filled with a tender vegetarian rice and tomato mixture. Beef shawarma ($8.99 wrap, $10.99 dinner) is succulent meat cut off the vertical roaster, and marinated chicken kebab ($9.79 wrap, $12.39 dinner) is cooked just until caramelized at the edges. A veggie dinner ($8.99) offers heaping portions of tabbouli, fattoush, hummus, and baba ghanoush or grape leaves on a salad. Whatever you order, you’ll probably take something home.
One night, we are enjoying Karageozian’s cooking and asking lots of questions. He slips out from behind the counter and brings us a sample of smoky baba ghanoush blended with tahini sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds ($3.99), and tells us we should try it.
“In Armenia, they can be the poorest people and they’ll put everything on the table for you,” says Darian, who feeds the couple’s 22-month-old son Noor’s rice, lule kebab, and fattoush.
When the duo ran out of money, they made do with tables that fit the space but are tacky to the touch, as if Con-Tact paper had been pulled off and the glue stayed behind. “I hate them,” says Darian. “They’ve got to go.” They’re waiting to make enough money for the purchase.
With food this good and a name that symbolizes prosperity, that will undoubtedly happen soon.