As someone who has been in love with food for ages and been becoming increasingly drawn by the idea of a career change, I was extremely excited to learn that my London-based friends, costume designer, Alexandra Kharibian, and her musician husband, Dominic Millard, are taking that much-coveted step and opening a café in Brighton. Inspired by Alexie’s Armenian heritage as well as the couple’s extensive travels in the Caucasus, Café Noor (Armenian for pomegranate) is the first place in Brighton, and one of the few in the UK, to offer its guests an authentic taste of this beautiful cuisine, full of exotic spices and fresh herbs. I am a big admirer of Caucasian/Persian food, so Café Noor’s menu is pure poetry to my eyes and my palette. What makes this place even more attractive to me, and I hope it will to you too, is that both Alexie and Dom are not severing all ties with their cultural backgrounds, and instead are planning to incorporate them into the life of the café. Café Noor has a lovely basement space, which is asking to be used for intimate gigs, film screenings and any other type of cultural gatherings. Our pilot session of KinoVino in October proved that this place could indeed become a cultural-foodie hub in Brighton. The creative touches are evident in the style of the cafe: a very quirky centrepiece of a bar, made of second-hand doors, beautiful light fixtures punctuate the space, some authentic Armenian rugs on the walls, and of course pictures of Sergei Paradjanov, the patron saint of restless creative souls, as well as posters of his films.
Only two month old, but already very popular with the locals, Café Noor is currently open for breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, but is planning to introduce dinner service soon too. I have recently visited Alexie and Dom in their new environment to sample the food and do some food styling and photography for them (my first endeavour outside my own Instagram account), and I could not have wished for a more prefect Saturday. While Dom works in the front of house, charming the hell out of all customers (there are a lot of regulars already), Alexie works her magic in the kitchen. Naturally I was extremely drawn to spend as much time as possible with her, to learn the new tricks. Having had the pleasure of cooking with Alexie for our sold out KinoVino event in August, I could not wait to taste her food again. Those lucky ones, who have attended our Caucasus-special KinoVino, will remember Alexie’s gorgeously lush honey cake. And it is one of the house specialties at Café Noor, available all day, and yes, it is as good as I’d remembered it. Other tea-time treats include tahini and walnut biscuits, which I have devoured with a small cup of fragrant Armenian coffee, made in a beautiful copper coffee pot, brought from the region. If you are the lover of spices and new flavours than Café Noor’s repertoire of dips will be a delight! Served with home-made pitta bread (gluten free version is also available), these little pots of vibrant colours and scents range from a more classic red pepper humous to (my personal favourite) muhammara. The specialty of the house is a gorgeous lahmajun, served with yoghurt and sumac dip; I could only try the veggie version, but I have no doubt that the meat one was as excellent. This Armenian pizza is the most popular dish in the house, rivaled only by shakshuka, meat and vegetarian, but Alexie has also introduced a vegan variation, which features small mushrooms stuffed with spinach and pine-nuts.
Café Noor’s repertoire of drinks is equally exciting and imaginative – from the gorgeous Armenian coffee it expands to fresh rose petal tea, fresh cinnamon tea and fresh thyme tea! The latter two were an instant sensation for me and I can’t recommend them enough. For those who live by the dictum ‘In Vino Veritas’, Café Noor has a beautiful selection of quality Georgian wines. While I haven’t yet tried all of them (something to be improved on my next visit), the majority of the wines have my stamp of approval. Not only are they delightful on their own but most importantly they go so well with the food menu. If you really want to heighten your experience at Café Noor (and of life in general), than you should treat yourself to the magical potion called Chacha. A beautifully fiery Georgian drink, a relative of Rakija, grappa and vodka.
Seriously impressed and inspired by Alexie’s and Dom’s achievement, I could not resist asking some questions about this project in hope that it will inspire my own courage to pursue my passion.
How did the idea of Café Noor came about?
The pomegranate is such an iconic part of Armenia and the region and when you go to Yerevan there are pomegranates all over the place, ceramic ones, jewellery inspired by the beautiful fruit, and of course in the food! We felt it was a very visual link to the cooking and the country. Noor also means ‘light’ in Farsi, which we thought was fitting too!
How long did it take for the café to open its doors?
It took us about two and a half months to complete the refurbishment – which we project managed ourselves with help from a very experienced friend who is a fantastic handy man! We had been chasing the property for a while and so had planned in detail how we would like to design the bar and space. We wanted to create an open, welcoming space with a flavour of the Caucasus!
Was it difficult to move to a new city and find your customers?
In one word – yes – but we really put the ground work in. Dom and I spent a year before finally getting the keys to our cafe working in cafe’s and bars in Brighton & Hove. We lived in a couple of different parts of the city, got to now the area, local traders, who was selling what and where. We discussed what we felt was missing and how our business might fit into the competitive and varied catering scene. Brighton is so different from the metropolis of London, word spreads – fast! But we sucked up all our experiences, and learnt quickly, it was a roller-coaster but extremely exciting!
How do you come up with your recipes?
Around the time we announced to our friends and family that we were leaving our careers and lives in London and moving to the sea to open a cafe that sold Georgian wine and Armenian food – (around the same time everyone thought we had lost our minds) – I was given a family heirloom by my sister – a book of recipes that was written by my Grandmother and the group of ladies that attended her Armenian Church in Massachusetts, USA from the 1970’s. Before this I had learnt from some Armenian ladies that were part of the Armenian community in London, learnt from what I ate in Armenia and Georgia that was good, and picked up recipes over the years from books I found here and there, mostly American Armenian cookbooks. My grandmothers book was, however, a turning point – as cheesy as it sounds, it was like a sign I was on the right track – a hand me down through the generations from a woman that survived a genocide, made a journey around the world from Armenia to the USA at the young age of fifteen, and lived until she was 96! I use these recipes as a guide, a basis on which to build and adapt to modern tastes.
What are you culinary influences?
There are many amazing middle eastern cook books that I use as a bit of a bible, including Claudia Roden, the brilliant Armenian cook Sonia Uvezian and of course I always feed in a bit of Yotam Ottolenghi wonderfully wide range of salads and middle eastern veggie dishes!
What are top 3 ingredients that you can’t live without?
Thats so hard!! Probably Tahini, lemons and garlic – they are in parcticarly everything I cook! And a little bit of lemon juice adds that zing and freshness that is so distinctive in Cafe Noor cooking. Can I have parsley as well?!
How do you source your food?
We researched our suppliers for several months before we confirmed our menu, and used our experience from having worked in the local area in cafe’s and bars for the year beforehand. Luckily, we live in Sussex which is bountiful in wonderful butchers, diaries and most importantly – breweries! Obviously food from the Caucasus requires regular deliveries of pomegranates, fresh herbs and a wide variety of nuts and spices! I find that the most important part of sourcing suppliers is finding products that are the best quality, and what you like to work with as a chef. Tahini is so important for example – a backbone for a lot of my recipes, and it took a while to find the right Tahini and trying many different suppliers! For me it is also important to know that the meat we use is sourced responsibly and I have to say the Brighton Sausage Co. are about as good as it gets with butchers – they are flexible, interested in our business and we have a great relationship with them.
As a non-professionally trained cook, was it hard to step into the professional kitchen?
I’d say that hardest part is getting over the feeling that you aren’t a ‘properly trained’ chef – and in many ways I’m not – but I have a lot of passion and commitment to Armenian & Georgian food. It means a lot to the community to keep our cooking alive, our language alive and many other parts of our culture modern and relevant. Armenians have fought very hard to survive, and truly when I think about what the food means to community – it really spurs me on! My father was an extremely enthusiastic cook too, and it was all a way of keeping in touch with his Armenian roots. Suddenly Gorden Ramsey doesn’t sound so scary! I also did a little bit of training in the wonderful kitchen at Honey & Co – and if you want to learn about how to run a great kitchen – there is no better place to go. Sarit at Honey & Co. was king enough to give me a few words of advice on starting a restaurant, and those words have gone a long way!!
What is it like to work with your husband?
In many ways it is wonderful, we are so close and work together every day, so you know what the other is thinking and it is easy to discuss choices you need to make. In other ways you have to do a lot of growing up in the relationship and be very patient!! I wouldn’t have it any other way….for now!!
What kind of menu do you plan to serve during dinner services?
A variety of foods from Armenian & Georgia and further a field into Iran and Syria. These foods have a very close relationship to one another and marry up perfectly on the dinner table!! It is also nice for me to have an opportunity to spend more time on a menu, other than our everyday menu!
Are there any special events coming up in Café Noor?
On the 13th Feb we I am collaborating with the wonderful Natalie Griffiths – the London based Armenian-Iranian chef. We will be cooking up a feast of Armenian-Iranian dishes and we are really looking forward to it! We are also investing in a projector screen, and various speakers etc!! So watch this space – or rather www.cafenoorbrighton.com