There's a lot of love at Nora's Kabob.
Brothers Sevi and Raymond Sinanian, who opened the Ellicott City restaurant last month, are quick to profess their affection for the flavors of their youth, including the almighty pomegranate, and for their mother, for whom Nora's is named.
Fortunately, the duo is more than just talk; their devotion to flavorful Middle Eastern cuisine shines through in their food. Though the service isn't perfect, the Sinanians' appreciation for their customers is clear.
Growing up in an Armenian family in Iran before moving to the U.S. a decade ago, the brothers learned the value of "fusion" at an early age. At Nora's, the similarities between the Armenian and Persian culinary traditions are on display: The menu is full of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes seasoned with flavors shared by both countries, including sumac, mint, onions and garlic.
Nora's is located in a shopping center on a busy stretch of U.S. 40, which is great for drawing in potential customers. But it's a shame that the restaurant's enormous picture window looks out on a crowded parking lot. Inside, the space is spotless and feels brand-new, with signs on dark walls welcoming diners in over a dozen languages and shiny clocks showing the time from New York to Yerevan, Armenia, and everywhere in between.
At lunchtime, Nora's operates like a fast-food joint — customers order at the counter running along the back of the restaurant — but in the evening, there is table service in the small dining room.
On a recent Saturday night, a steady stream of carryout customers kept the counter staff busy, and in the dining room, most of the tables were occupied all night by a mix of families and couples of all ages.
We got lucky when we arrived about 7 p.m., snagging one of the last tables. From the moment we walked in, the staff's good attitude was on display. Neatly dressed in a shirt and tie, our waiter offered us menus and, in heavily accented English, explained that Nora's didn't have a liquor license (they expect to have one soon and until then, BYOB is available with no corkage charge).
We began the meal with an order of mirza ghassemi ($6), a Persian eggplant, tomato and egg dish similar to baba ghanouj. Served with warm triangles of pita bread, the sweet-but-acidic tomato was at the forefront of the chunky dip, backed up by subtly smoky eggplant and the spicy bite of garlic. Our only complaint was that we ran out of bread long before the bowl was empty.
The lamb gyro ($9) arrived carryout-style, wrapped in paper and foil, with a small spinach pie and plastic cups filled with tzatziki and a fresh salad of marinated cucumber, tomato and red onion. The gyro was fairly traditional — no splashy Armenian-Persian twists here — and its casual appearance felt out of place in the dining room. But the portion was generous and the flavors were top-notch, with a big pile of juicy lamb, warm and savory, topped with the usual array of shredded lettuce, tomato and tangy tzatziki.
Kebabs are Nora's raison d'etre, and the menu offers a variety of options. We opted for the Soltani II ($14), a combination plate including two kebabs: one chicken and one koobideh (finely minced beef and lamb, mixed with spices and formed into a log). Both were very good — the chicken was well-seasoned, with a faint smoky air, and incredibly juicy; and while the koobideh didn't look particularly appetizing, its spices lent an appealing, mildly exotic flavor.
Later, over the phone, Sevi explained that the koobideh is even better when sprinkled with the deep red-purple sumac that sat in a shaker on the table, next to the salt and pepper. Sumac aids the digestion, he explained, which makes it especially good with fattier meats. We only wish we'd known that at dinner. By the time we noticed the sumac, we were on to dessert.
Unfortunately, while we enjoyed the kebabs, their side dishes were lackluster. Marinated white onions added a tart bit of crunch and a roasted tomato was pleasantly charred, but red cabbage added more color than flavor, and a large serving of rice was dry and, frankly, boring.
After the entrees, our waiter brought us a pretty triangle of baklava ($3.50), made at the Sinanians' other Ellicott City business, Nora's Cafe and Bakery. The dessert was traditionally prepared — flaky phyllo layered with nuts and honey — but was drizzled with a tart pomegranate reduction that offered an excellent contrast to the sticky sweetness of the honey.
As we bit into the dessert, another table's waiter watched our faces, looking for a reaction, before excitedly explaining the addition of the pomegranate (we'd guessed raspberry). His enthusiasm for the dish was palpable. Enough, even, that though the meal ended with a lag (we waited too long for the check), we were still feeling the excitement — the love — for Nora's as we said goodbye and headed back out onto busy U.S. 40.
Back story: Nora's Kabob is a new Ellicott City restaurant, run by brothers who also operate the nearby Nora's Cafe and Bakery. It serves kebabs and Mediterranean specialties with a Persian-Armenian twist.
Parking: Lot in front
Signature dish: The kebabs are good, but the lamb gyro's gooey combination of warm and savory lamb, crunchy lettuce and cool and tangy tzatziki sauce is the best bet.
Where: 9338 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City
Contact: 410-418-5911, noraskabob.com
Open: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday
Credit cards: All major credit cards
[Key: Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]