In this corner of The Improper, we mostly focus on swank fine-dining restaurants with table service, wandering down-market only occasionally to the odd fabulous taquería, exceptional pizzeria or amazing Shaanxi noodle joint. Somehow we’ve never reviewed the suddenly ubiquitous fast-casual format that Chipotle pioneered two decades ago: a chimera of fast-food counter service, highly customizable ordering, slightly nicer ambiance and somewhat-better-quality ingredients. Partly it’s because we don’t do chains, but as important, it’s because many of these places don’t inspire much joy. That shiny new place that wants to be the Chipotle of gyros still doesn’t measure up to the modest old Greek storefront a couple of blocks away. But then we finally got to Anoush’ella: Saj Kitchen, a singular purveyor of Armenian-Lebanese cuisine that debuted in the South End this fall.
It has all the now-familiar fast-casual hallmarks: a gleaming, sunnily tall-windowed space with counter service (they’ll run your order to your seat), an open kitchen that tantalizingly displays everything on order, a few tables (including a big communal one), one cozy low-slung booth, a few more bar and counter seats. There’s a short list of housemade soft drinks ($2.75-$3) you self-serve from a refrigerated case, plus a bartender/barista dishing out a scant few beers ($5.75), wines ($8.75/glass, $48/bottle), cocktails ($9) and caffeinated drinks ($2-$5). Customers bus their own tables; takeout business is brisk. While colorful and handsome as these places go, there are few initial hints of anything extraordinary here.
So let’s start with the mezze (cold: 1/$4.25, 3/$11.45, 5/$17.85; hot: 1/$6, 3/$16, 5/$25), as these small-plates assortments also feature prominently in the various sandwiches, salads, grain bowls and yogurt dishes served here as well. You’ll know most of them: excellent renditions of hummus and baba ganoush; labne (a thick strained yogurt imported from Lebanon, creamily tangy and delectable) dusted with za’atar (a dry-spice blend of thyme, marjoram, sesame and sumac); a fierce take on muhammara (here called walnut harrisa); mouth-puckering strips of pickled turnip in Day-Glo pink; a bulgur-light version of tabbouleh; a couple of pristine, herb-heavy salads. Warm and meaty mezze include hummus topped with tenderly long-braised beef chuck; dreamy roasted chicken redolent of za’atar; spiced ground lamb you may recognize as the topping of Armenian lamajuns; slender meatball-like kofta of beef and lamb; soft, mild, dumpling-like red-lentil kofta; a gorgeous layering of labne, soft-grilled eggplant and spiced ground lamb; a pilaf of rice and brown lentils crowned with more labne and a sprinkle of gobsmacking, darkly fried onions; braised beef striped with vivid-green zouk (a cilantro-based condiment) and tawny/sweet mango sauce. Enjoyed with the included pile of m’anoush, also known as saj bread—a thin, pita-like flatbread prepared on a domed grill—an assortment of these plates makes for nonpareil grazing.
If you’re less hungry or want quick takeout, you can choose from a variety of m’anoush wrap sandwiches, each encasing a kaleidoscope of sensations in a compact rollup. I’d gratefully wolf down another egg roll m’anoush ($6) anytime, especially at breakfast. The flatbread tightly wraps a two-egg omelet filled with mild cheese, crunchy salad veggies, fresh mint, zingy black olives and pickled turnips and za’atar, with available upgrades of “spicy” (a complimentary slash of chili-hot harissa), labne ($0.75) and sujuk ($1.50), slices of a terrific, soppressata-like sausage. Chicken za’atar m’anoush ($9.55) similarly yields a fascinating, different-every-bite spectrum of flavors, here combining delicate shreds of za’atar chicken with hummus, tomatoes, baked-potato slices, pickled turnip and a wicked garlic sauce (plus an optional harissa hit). These sandwiches don’t look huge, but they deliver intense, gigantic flavors and are deeply satisfying.
Salad bowls and grain bowls ($9.50) are hefty yet light-footed, like the monk salad of greens, roasted eggplant, red pepper, tomatoes, onion and cilantro, lightly drizzled with fresh lemon and good olive oil, or hearty, large-bore toasted couscous dolloped with hummus and walnut harissa and topped with fattoush (shards of toasted m’anoush); you can add beef, chicken, kofta or lentil kofta for protein ($3.50). Most cold mezze are available as sides ($3.50), too.
I like strained yogurt, but Anoush’ella offers garnished bowls of its sublime labne ($5.45) that are downright lovable, with savory adornments like za’atar and crunchy/tangy pomegranate seeds, or tomatoes, cukes, mint and black olives (both drizzled with fine EVOO), and sweet toppings like banana, almond, pignoli, cinnamon and honey, or blueberries, walnuts, and a “power” mix of chia, pumpkin and sunflower seeds dosed with grape molasses. Sweet m’anoush rollups ($6) work equally well as day-starters for the French-toast-and-syrup set and as lovely shareable desserts, with fillings like Nutella, strawberries, banana, cinnamon, honey and granola, or “Anoush’ella s’mores”: Nutella, graham crackers and marshmallows.
Fast-casual still mostly leaves me cold. While I appreciate the format’s convenience and have-it-your-way menus, it too often has a kind of corporate, assembly-line soullessness, plus ingredient quality that doesn’t always justify the fast-food-plus prices. Anoush’ella soars above its peers on two obvious strengths: its novel combination of Armenian and Lebanese culinary traditions, with their complex spice palettes and ancient, elemental whole foods, and in-house preparation of superior ingredients to produce its versatile array of building blocks. The result is unfailingly delicious, often beautiful food at very fair prices. It’s a worthy paragon of what the category is capable of, but too rarely delivers. ◆
Assorted hot and cold mezze
Egg roll m’anoush with labne and sujuk
Chicken za’atar m’anoush, “spicy”
Monk salad bowl
Lentil rice grain bowl
Savory labne with za’atar
Sweet labne with blueberry and power seeds
Anoush’ella: Saj Kitchen, 35 W. Newton St., Boston (857-265-3195) anoushella.com; Hours: Mon.-Fri., 11 am-9:30 pm; Sat.-Sun., 10 am-9:30 pm (brunch, 10 am—2 pm); Reservations: No; Liquor: Full; Parking: Metered street spaces and limited guest street spaces