When it comes to quick and healthy, I don’t have many go-to dining spots in the city proper. If I’m in a hurry, I have two ideas — get glowing smoothie at Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market or a burrito bowl at Chipotle. Or I bag it all and get a muffin from WPA Bakery. It is what it is. Happily, Elizabet Bandazian also saw this void and opened Coriander, an Armenian take-away spot, in Carytown late last year.
Hers is a no-frills introduction to traditional Armenian cuisine packaged in a way Americans really like: wraps and bowls. Speaking of Chipotle, it invariably will come to mind. The restaurant chain has singlehandedly turned the build-your-own formula into a national fetish during the past decade, upon which Bandazian is capitalizing.
For the uninitiated, think of Armenian food as a cross between Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. The staple grain is bulgur, and you’ll find a reliance on herbs rather than spice.
Inside Coriander, walls are clean and spare save a chalkboard menu of specials and a clock that says “Live, Laugh, Love.” It’s the trill of Arabic music that enlivens the space. Behind the food bar, there’s no assembly line of hands. It’s just Bandazian, smiling, happily answering questions and delicately preparing your meal.
You might get the feeling that things could move more speedily — that there could be more organization. But you also could appreciate this extra attention. There’s no sloppy layering of ingredients merging into a 5-pound bowl that will send you directly into a food coma. It’s fair to say that Bandazian is a bit of a micro-manager when it comes to meal prep. She carefully drizzles, sprinkles and layers — a master of portion control. She either missed the super-sized memo or tossed it in the trash. Thankfully. This means you can eat an entire lahmajun ($4.99) at lunch and then go about your day.
That’s a traditional wrap with a swipe of minced meat or mushroom in tomato paste spread over homemade lavash that Bandazian makes daily with pride. It starts off looking like a pizza, but ends in a wrap layered with garlic-yogurt, red sauce and cabbage salad. You could ask to fill it with even more toppings from the cold bar — but less is more.
For something more familiar, try the beef or chicken wrap ($5.99). Without the tomato base of the lahmajun, you’re free to go wild with toppings. I keep it simple with chicken shaved from a vertical rotisserie, the aforementioned sauces, tomato and cucumber salad, and two kinds of cabbage, green with herbs, and red with oil and vinegar. I also add feta — an extra $1.99, but worth it for a needed zing.
The plastic foam containers are a bummer, but I can see the bowls being a hit during this phase of American eating that I’ll call the great gluten scare. There’s the cold bowl ($6.99), warm bowl ($7.99) and the deluxe bowl ($8.99), which is a combo of the two. If you’re like me and have an aversion to having too many flavors on your plate, go for the warm bowl. I try it with beef, bulgur (rice optional) and fasoulia, green beans simmered with tomato and onion. It tastes and feels like a meal with all parts working together. Simple and home-cooked.
Conversely, the cold bowl consists of side-by-side layers of any or all of the cold salads available that day. I try seasoned kale, red potato salad, red bean salad, olive tapenade, herbed cantaloupe and quinoa salad. Overall, it’s how you would imagine vegetarian food from the ’70s might taste — healthy and earthy. It’s missing brightness, though, and I want a little more flavor. Cilantro would do the trick. The restaurant’s namesake and its leafy variant both show up here and there, but I’d like a separate bowl of torn leaves for a little boost.
Soups ($3.99) are another menu staple. The vegan lentil is a solid base recipe — one that’s OK as is, but calls for doctoring. Salt and pepper help, and so would fresh herbs or dried curry powder. The tomato-basil soup has a deep, smoky and roasted flavor that also could be balanced by fresh basil leaves in addition to the dried.
One bright aspect: the prices. Meals are affordable, though I’m puzzled by the price tags for extras. The scale is wonky. It’s $1.99 for a few cubes of feta, $2.99 for a bottled soda and $4.99 for an entire sandwich. I hope Bandazian evens it out by raising her sandwich prices so she can get more help behind the counter and in the kitchen — or at least someone dedicated to making the daily lavash so she can keep with her vision of healthy, quick and traditional. S
3125 W. Cary St.
Tuesdays-Saturdays 11 a.m.-7 p.m.