About eight years ago, my husband and I were in the small, Delaware County town of Bovina, a “dry” town that bans the sale of alcoholic beverages. The owner of the B&B where we were staying casually mentioned that a new restaurant had recently opened. We weren’t expecting much, but figured it was easy and close, so we walked up the block to what turned out to be Main Street. Located on the ground floor of a small, two-story house, the restaurant had about 10 unadorned wooden tables and a solicitous owner who “gave” us a bottle of wine.
Our meal turned out to be astonishingly good. So good, in fact, that we thanked the chef, Serge Madikians — and through friends, we’ve indirectly kept up with him over the years. Madikians is now chef-owner of Serevan Restaurant in Amenia. Readers of this magazine have twice voted him the “Best Chef” — and Serevan the “Best Restaurant” — in the Hudson Valley.
So — wondering whether Madikians would just be resting on his laurels — it was with more than a little curiosity that we decided to make the trip to Serevan on a Monday night, usually a fairly slow restaurant evening and all too often staffed by a kitchen clearly tired after the weekend rush. Let’s just say we were not disappointed.
Palate pleaser: Serevan’s seared diver scallops are served with fingerling potatoes, fresh greens, and Merguez sausage
Madikians is an Armenian whose family fled to Iran to escape the post-World War I massacre of Armenians living in what was then the Ottoman Empire. The family owned and operated restaurants throughout Iran. Madikians came to the United States to study history and philosophy, but after completing graduate studies in 1997 he decided to enroll at the French Culinary Institute. Following graduation, he worked in the kitchens of Jean-Georges Vongerichten and David Bouley, later becoming executive chef at the well-regarded New York City Moroccan restaurant Chez es Saada (which is now closed).
In 2002, Madikians moved to Bovina. There, he began to combine the flavors and ingredients of his multicultural family’s cuisine; the classical cuisines of his training; and his own developing interest in sourcing local, seasonal ingredients. His culinary evolution culminated with the opening of Serevan in 2005.
What developed is a unique and exciting cuisine that is neither Middle Eastern nor Mediterranean. Madikians’ food is simultaneously subtle and bold. In the wrong hands, multiple ingredients and seasonings can merely complicate dishes, creating hard-to-identify, often muddy, tastes. Under Madikians’ deft touch, however, everything works in harmony, with ingredients clarifying and augmenting each dish’s essential flavors.
Situated in a house built in the late 1800s, the restaurant has an attractive bar that opens into the dining room with its well-spaced tables and large fireplace. In season, pots of herbs adorn the hearth and hang over the counter separating the dining room from the small kitchen. Madikians’ identical twin, Rouben, is in charge of the front of the house; and Ian Wright, Madikians’ first sous-chef and a CIA graduate, is back in the kitchen.
For Madikians, it’s all about ingredients. “As a cook,” he says, “you can impose your will or you can make yourself available to what the ingredients suggest. I try to take what nature, with all its intricacies and nuances, offers — and work with that. It is the ingredients that reign, not the chef.”
Family affair: Originally from Armenia, the family of Serge Madikians ran restaurants throughout Iran
After purchasing the building that houses Serevan, Madikians’ first project was to plant a garden so he could grow herbs not easily attainable at the local farms or markets which provide most of the restaurant’s produce and livestock. It provides multiple varieties of thyme, Japanese shiso, Persian tarragon, curry plants, and several types of cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes.
The judicious use of spices, oils, and unexpected ingredients made each dish that we ordered a revelation. A seemingly simple appetizer of falafel consisted of two perfectly formed and fried ground chickpea rounds flavored with a hint of coriander and cumin and surrounded by hummus, labne (a tangy cow’s milk yogurt), shirazi (an Iranian salad of finely chopped tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers with lime juice and mint), marinated red cabbage, and carrots. The sweet flavor of roasted beets — an item which seems de rigueur on most menus these days — stands out due to Madikians’ addition of tangy oranges, arugula, Greek feta, pistachios, and just enough pistachio oil to give the dish an unexpected flourish. “These are just the best beets I’ve ever had,” exclaimed my friend, who has never seen a beet on a menu that he hasn’t ordered.
Madikians’ interpretation of lahmajoon, an Armenian pizza, was among the special appetizers he was previewing for possible inclusion on the menu. A tart shell is substituted for the traditional pita base; ground lamb, which has been cooked with spices and apples, is then slathered over a layer of puréed spinach and topped with haloumi cheese (which becomes appealingly gooey and runny when baked). The accompanying house-made harrisa, a chili-like sauce, offered a fiery contrast to the mild taste of the lamb.
So often, appetizers are the highlight of the meal and the entrées are a letdown. Not at Serevan. The Chicken Bastillia (now a fixture on the menu because, says Madikians, customers used to call in advance to see if it would be featured) is a tantalizing mix of clove and cardamom-spiced chicken, braised golden raisins, and romaine wilted in an orange-curry broth, all of which is encased in a gossamer-layered phyllo dough. Diver scallops are handsomely presented with fingerling potatoes. Practically hidden in the greens on which the scallops sit are spicy rectangles of Merguez sausage and small pieces of grapefruit — palate-pleasing surprises that highlight the caramelized sweetness of the scallops.
Above, Serevan’s white salad, made with cauliflower, jicama, chayote, and oranges
Spaetzle (literally translated from the German as “little dumplings”) are what one would expect to find on an Austrian, German, or Hungarian menu. Although it varies with the seasons, in late May the dish was a spring serenade, featuring fresh peas, ramps, wild mushrooms, pickled onions, and a hint of saffron. Beautiful to look at as well as to eat, it was quintessential comfort food, smooth and creamy. The evening’s special, a fillet of organic salmon, was served with morels, organic Swiss chard, and Iranian zereshk — a fruit resembling red currants — and surrounded by caramelized honey and tahini sauce.
Desserts, made in-house by the chef, don’t disappoint. The crème brûlée had a hint of rose water and was accompanied by small orange segments and berries. Rose water also formed the basis of the panna cotta, its creaminess set off by a hint of citrus and a tart rhubarb soup. The not-too-sweet toffee cake was served with chocolate caramel sauce and orange ice cream, and crème fraîche cheesecake was paired with an apricot sorbet and fresh berries.
There is a creative and well-priced cocktail menu and an interesting selection of quality wines by the glass. Bottles are reasonably priced, and each selection is accompanied by a helpful and clear description, both of the grape and of the taste.
At Serevan, Madikians has created all the elements that need to come together for a memorable and satisfying evening. First and foremost, there is the food — which is outstanding. But the service is attentive and well-paced as well, and the room is conducive for conversation. Madikians is a constant presence, walking between dining room and kitchen, visibly attending to a specific dish, then — a few minutes later — checking on a table.
So all those kudos are — still — well deserved.