Hagop is a deceptively simple Armenian-Lebanese restaurant hiding in plain sight on a relatively busy stretch of Ventura Boulevard, next door to a neighborhood liquor store named Cheers.
Step inside the homespun joint and you might feel as if you're sitting in someone's home in the rural outskirts of Beirut. Each table is plainly decorated with a tiny Arak bottle holding a flower arrangement, and of course there's arak (Lebanon's beloved anise-flavored spirit), which arrives considerately softened with water and ice cubes, turning the high-octane clear liquid magically into an ethereally cloudy beverage. Your simple but potent cocktail goes well with mezze, Mediterranean small plates, and kebabs — which is exactly what you should expect to eat.
Since emigrating from Lebanon, Hagop's owners — a husband-and-wife team (he cooks; she's the sole server, maitre d' and overall jack-of-all-trades) — have been quietly going about their business for the better part of three decades in the same storefront. And they have raised their children and now grandchildren inside the dining room, crawling around the tables oblivious to the fact that it's actually a restaurant. Compliment the owners on the whole grilled loup de mer and you'll receive an almost bashful smile in return. Local expats have taken the restaurant on as a home base, thinking nothing of downing bottle after bottle of arak to whet their appetite for hefty platters of grilled meats.
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The food is fantastic and simple. The minced beef kebab — topped with griddled pitas and charbroiled tomatoes and onions and seasoned with fistfuls of sumac (you'll need the pitas to sop up the garlicky kebab juices) — is the main event among the dozen dishes on offer. Other dishes include the aforementioned whole grilled fish, shish kebabs and delicately smoky grilled Cornish game hens.
Additionally, there are small plates of lamb tongue and taut, spiced Lebanese sausages. And the beefy, garlicky, pungent basturma (the cured and air-dried precursor to pastrami and charcuterie) is a fitting prologue to an onslaught of kebabs.
And for dessert, there is always ashta on offer, a cultured cream topped with honey and crushed pistachios, delicately perfumed with hints of rosewater.
Hagop, 14228 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 995-8254, hagoprestaurant.com.