Hollywood Grill bills itself on its sign in English as an Armenian restaurant and in Russian more broadly as a restaurant of the Caucasus. Owners Zina and Hovick Grigoryan, hailing from Georgia and Armenia by way of Brighton Beach, bring a bit of Eastern Black Sea resort to South Florida.
At first glance, you might wonder what would bring such unusual fare to a beach café here, but it makes perfect sense to South Broward's and Northeast Dade's growing community of émigrés from in and around the former Soviet Union. You'll usually also find some of it on the menus at upscale "Russian" restaurants from Los Angeles and Brooklyn to Club Pearl in Hallandale Beach and a half-dozen others around Sunny Isles, where it provides the same sort of accessible exoticism Italian food adds to many "all-American" menus these days. But most relevantly, Armenian, Georgian, and Azeri food long ago became standard fare for cookouts, vacations, and wine- and garlic-fueled nights throughout that region.
An ideal introduction to what the food of the Caucasus is about comes in a bowl. One of several soups, the kharcho ($6) stands out, the best version I've had in years. Much more than a lamb-and-rice soup as most menus and cookbooks translate it, a good kharcho is a mildly spicy soup redolent with walnuts, garlic, perhaps dried cherries, and most importantly a blend of herbs and spices called khmeli-suneli, which includes coriander, marjoram, fenugreek, mint, and dill, lending it a flavor like nothing else except perhaps other Armenian and Georgian food. Another lamb soup, piti, was enjoyable but less dramatically seasoned, built around larger, milder-tasting pieces of meat and chickpeas in place of the rice and bits of vegetable.
As you might expect from a beachside café specializing in the foods of a region that borders on Turkey and Iran, kebabs abound. Lamb kebab ($10) and kofta-like ground-meat lyulya kebabs ($8) were fine, particularly the lamb, reddened by a spice mixture, perhaps adzhika, a fenugreek-spiked pepper paste with origins in Georgia. They come accompanied by a choice of fries, lightly buttered rice, or our favorite, olive-oil-infused roasted potatoes dusted with garlic and herbs. The kebabs were best enjoyed wrapped in a strip of (alas, not locally made) lavash with some raw onion and a dab of the included satsabeli sauce, a distinctly Georgian/Armenian sour-plum-based condiment tasting of dill, garlic, and coriander.
An order of chicken satsivi, a cold, mild dip made of shreds of boiled chicken in a pale-yellow ground-walnut sauce, however, was more pedestrian. Something seemed missing, maybe the bit of peppery zing I've encountered before. Belhoor ($8), a kasha variant of cooked cracked wheat topped with sauteed mushrooms and a bit of broth, could have used a bit more flavor and gravy for my taste as an entrée, but as a side dish for the table, it would do just fine.
On another visit, we stumbled early. A handwritten sign in Russian taped to a window read "KHASH season has begun." I ordered a bowl, though the waitress did her best to try to talk me out of it. "Some people really like it..." Wrinkled nose. "Others... don't." An austere, virtually unseasoned bowl of khash pork broth; fatty, cartilaginous bones; and chewy pork skin landed with accompaniments. Following instructions, I stirred in a couple of tablespoons of freshly grated garlic, bits of toasted lavash, and some granulated white powder from a small bowl that the waitress said was salt, even though there was already a shaker on the table. I tasted a dab, and it was salty, but I hesitated. I went ahead and added some. Then more. Then some pepper. Then more of both, until finally it was sort of OK in an exotic, adventure-travel kind of way but not actually enjoyable. Definitely an acquired taste. The waitress did get a bit misty-eyed talking about how her mom would make it when she got sick. Among other things, it's a folk remedy, especially for broken bones. My companion and I gave it our best. We each had a few more spoonfuls before giving up, the broth slick with what we decided on the way home, guzzling bottled water, was actually MSG, a seasoning I'm fine with in moderation. Let's just say I'm glad I didn't finish off the bowl.
The rest of that meal had enough highs to make it more than worthwhile, though. The lobio appetizer, which also makes a fine side, was a scrumptious, extremely refreshing kidney-bean salad, strewn with crushed walnuts, minced garlic, parsley, dill, and an Armenian staple, pomegranate seeds, all lightly dressed in oil and vinegar. Sorry, Mom, but the fiancée liked it even more than your terrific three-bean salad. Their khachapuri (kha-cha-POO-ree), a Georgian word that translates as "cheese bread," is represented here as an airy, flaky filo-dough pie filled with firm, buttery cheese. It was good, but I'd been hoping for a stuffed-bread version with warmer melted cheese inside. Hinkali meat dumplings offered another geography lesson. The tennis-ball-sized pouches of thick dough with a massive ball of oniony meat filling looked and tasted like something from Northern China or a dim sum cart, and leftovers the next day were right at home with a splash of soy sauce, a reminder that the Silk Road carried more than just fabrics and spices.
Still better, the chicken kebab we'd admired from afar on a previous visit was as good as it looked, bone-in, skin-on chunks of poultry, simply seasoned and grilled tender and juicy. In place of the yummy satsabeli sauce, unfortunately, was a monochromatically tomato-based version that hewed a little too closely to ketchup for my taste. Hopefully, they'll stick to the tangier, plum-based condiment.
There's much more to explore, and with most entrées coming in at or under $10 and many appetizers around $6, it's an easy place to sample some dishes seldom seen in these parts and others, like lamajun, the Armenian meat pies you'll find at Turkish and Lebanese eateries, in their original context. The food lends itself well to sharing, especially with some Lithuanian beer or a bottle of Armenian or Georgian wine, the latter of which I particularly recommend in order to support that country in the face of Russian trade sanctions intended to break its pro-Western government. Georgia makes a good case for being the birthplace of winemaking, going back some 5,000 years, and the country's wineries have been enjoying something of a renaissance. Vineyards have largely recovered from massive damage suffered during Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign of the 1980s, when fields were torn up and even bottle factories were shut down, which did less to cut production than it did to turn Soviets into avid recyclers. By the time Gorbachev stepped down, it wasn't unheard of for the deposit fees on beer and soda bottles to be higher than the price of the contents.
Before heading back to the sand, fans of baklava may want to try the Grigoryans' in-house version, pahlava, a sturdy cigar of phyllo stuffed with coarsely ground walnuts and cinnamon. They also make an Eastern European-style Napoleon, and like any sensibly run beach café, they've got ice cream too. For those playing along at home, the area's "Russian" grocery stores (a misnomer, since they're as likely to be owned by and cater to people from all over the former USSR) stock most of the ingredients you'll need to try your hand at conjuring these flavors. You'll find more south of the Miami-Dade County line in Sunny Isles, but although Fort Lauderdale's one such establishment recently closed, in Hallandale Beach, you have at least two options. The Tsarsky Deli and Cafe (1700 E. Hallandale Beach Blvd., Hallandale Beach, 954-458-7757) also has tables for a casual meal you can assemble from the prepared foods available at the counter. Better prices and a much better selection can be found a little to the north at the maddeningly generically named Wine Beer & Deli (217 N. Federal Hwy., Hallandale Beach, 954-458-9880). Bottles of various Armenian and Georgian sauces can be had for about $4 apiece.