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Saturday, December 14

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Airbags

This week we bid a bittersweet àdieu to Kim Conte, our long-time restaurant critic. Rather than name a single replacement, however, we're going to try something a bit different: Members of the Gapers Block staff will be getting together to visit a new restaurant each week, and each review will summarize the opinions of the group.

We're going to take you to places that you mostly won't find reviewed in other publications -- overlooked restaurants in some of the hip areas of town, popular places in unhip neighborhoods, stalwarts that have been around so long that nobody bothers to review them anymore and even some places you may not think of for their food.

One of those stalwarts would be Sayat Nova. Located just steps from Michigan Avenue in Streeterville since the 1970s, it's easily overlooked in favor of one of its flashier neighbors, but those who happen to notice the small building behind The GAP at Ohio will be pleasantly surprised at the romantic coziness of the room and the warmth of the atmosphere. A row of semicircular alcoves dappled with subdued light line one of the walls, while a dark wood bar and lounge-like area are toward the front. We sat in one of the booths, which was just big enough for four and probably more ideal for two.

Sayat Nova specializes in what it calls East Armenian cuisine, which seemed to translate as a slightly earthier variation on the ubiquitous Mediterranean. Many of the standards of that genre -- tabouleh, stuffed grape leaves, kabobs -- were present, but there were some different items as well.

We started our meal with some appetizers, most of which were priced between $3 and $6. The plaki, white northern beans cooked with garlic and just a hint of tomato sauce, was a big hit with everyone -- the beans were just on the verge of falling apart but still held their shape, and the sauce was light but flavorful. The cheese boereg, a small triangle of creamy cheese baked inside a phylo crust, was rich and tasty but a bit small; it would have been a good size for one or two, but we had trouble splitting it four ways. The red cabbage salad was delicious in its simplicity -- just shredded red cabbage tossed in lemon juice and olive oil, it was zesty and refreshing, leaving us ready for more.

Our entrees came with our choice of soup or salad. The salad was pretty simple, although it came topped with more of the red cabbage salad, while the soup of the day, red lentil (non-vegetarian), was perfect for a cold winter's day.

The sauteed lamb dish on the "specialties" list was reminiscent of a kabob, unskewered, along with small bites of lean lamb, tomatoes, onion, green pepper fried together and served with rice. The meat was as lean as promised, and the vegetables were crisp and flavorful. The rice was probably the most disappointing of the dish -- it was like bland Rice-O-Roni by sight and taste. When mixed with the extra oil and spices from the meat (of which there was only a bit), it really perked up. The Lulla Kabob was served with the same bland rice, but had less available to make it more flavorful. The meat, however, was described as "insanely good,"more than making up for the poor accompaniment.

The sarma dinner, also from the specialties list, was similar to Greek dolma, grape leaves stuffed with rice and tomato filling. The dish came with eight sarma, either vegetarian or with ground lamb in the filling, and a baked eggplant with a similar filling. The eggplant was just a couple bites, but considering the number of sarma, that was enough.

There were quite a few vegetarian dishes on the menu, including a combo platter which one of us ordered. It turned out, by coincidence, to be a partial re-run of the appetizers we ordered -- the cheese boereg and the plaki made a second appearance, along with some tabouleh and a cold spinach dish. The tabouleh was good, with a nice acidity to it, but the spinach dish wasn't as appealing.

All the entrees were between $9 and $16, making Sayat Nova a good value for the neighborhood, and the portions were in line with the prices, if not a bit low for the apps. Lunch prices are even more reasonable. Service was attentive and courses were extremely well timed -- we got our next plates almost as soon as we finished the previous ones. Our server went out of his way to warn us that an item we ordered (the soup) wasn't vegetarian, even though we hadn't indicated that one of us was veggie -- a nice touch in a city of meat eaters. And even though the meal service was efficient, we didn't feel rushed.

Bowing to the recent fad, Sayat Nova also has hookahs available for diners. We didn't inquire about the cost. Overall, we had a great time, and as we headed toward the Mag Mile and our buses and trains, it felt like we had stumbled on a well-kept secret -- hidden in plain view.

Sayat Nova is at 157 E. Ohio. Open every day. Reservations are accepted at 312/644-9159.

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