ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Brothers Ash and Marat Darbinyan have something of a reputation among family and friends as the guys everyone wants in the kitchen.
Big Darbinyan clan get-together? Leave the cooking to the boys.
A friend is getting married? Ash and Marat will handle the catering.
The Armenian-born brothers have long enjoyed cooking, especially for others. They each have had various restaurant jobs since moving to Albuquerque in 2006. But they always wanted the restaurant itself, so last month they opened Aura – a “European Mediterranean” eatery – at the Far North Shopping Center.
“(We are) trying to live the American dream,” Ash says of the duo, who hail from Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, and lived a few years in New York before finding their way to Albuquerque. “We were waiting for the right opportunity. We’ve always wanted to own (a restaurant) and we’ve been working up toward it.”
Aura patrons will find a menu dotted with Armenian favorites like shashlik – kebabs – featuring grilled beef, chicken, lamb or pork ($11-$18.50 for a dinner platter) and eggplant caviar ($5.50), a spread made with roasted vegetables.
Other entrees include asparagus wrapped in chicken and topped with mushrooms and a cream sauce ($13.50), plus the likes of beef stroganoff ($11) and grilled salmon ($15.50).
The menu also includes a full page of appetizers that range from crab cakes ($9) to stuffed grape leaves ($5) and Russian blinchik ($5 for two) – seasoned beef stuffed inside a crepe-like wrapper.
Aura also serves beer and wine, and has a lunch menu with some lower-priced plates.
Marat typically mans the kitchen, while Ash oversees front-of-house operations at the 86-seat restaurant. Once home to the long-gone Gin Mill Restaurant & Tavern, the space underwent an extensive four-month remodel to become Aura, a name “that represents us – good, bright aura,” Ash says.
The duo poured their savings into the place and even did some of the work themselves, like drilling hundreds of holes in the board that hangs above the bar to reveal star-like dots of red LED light.
“We’ve put in our passion,” Ash says. “We always wanted it, and now we have it and we just have to make it work.”
Aura is located at 6300 San Mateo NE, at Academy, in the same shopping center as Sprouts Farmers Market. It is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon-8 p.m. Sunday. It is closed on Mondays.
The phone number is 508-3224.
Blue Moon returns
The Blue Moon is up again.
Carol Sinor recently reopened her boutique after a four-month hiatus – a period that saw her leave Nob Hill for new Sawmill District digs. Her shop is now around the corner from Ponderosa Brewing Co. and Prismatic Coffee, occupying the ground-level commercial space beneath apartments in a gradually transforming neighborhood.
“It’s a great area,” she says of her current location. “It’s sort of tucked away, but it’s right off all this stuff that’s happening.”
Sinor originally opened Blue Moon Marketplace in Nob Hill in 2014. She chose the “Blue Moon” moniker to reflect her things-you-don’t-see-every-day inventory of both new, handmade items and vintage goods. The curated selection includes many locally made products, like tea towels from Kei & Molly Textiles. and Sunshine Garden’s organic lotions in scents like grapefruit-lemongrass-ginger and chai spice.
But she also looks far and wide for interesting small-scale vendors, sourcing soy candles from Pennsylvania, hand-etched pocket flasks from Brooklyn and jewelry fashioned out of recycled material – think marbles and old stained glass – out of Illinois.
“It’s kind of an eclectic shop,” Sinor says. “My motto is ‘live and buy with purpose.’ And what I mean by that is I don’t carry anything in my shop that’s mass-produced. I just feel like we’ve kind of gotten away from that a little bit, and it’s kind of nice to have that option in supporting local artists and (having) things like that in my shop.”
While Sinor has developed – and is continuing to build – a network of regular suppliers for the new items, the vintage array is often changing. The current selection includes several handbags – like a graphic box purse – cowboy boots, glassware and more.
Though she’s particularly fond of mid-century modern design, “if something catches my eye, I’m going to bring it in.”
Blue Moon Marketplace is located at 1751 Bellamah NW, unit #1113. It’s east of Rio Grande and south of Interstate 40.
It’s open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and noon-5 p.m. on Sunday. The phone number is 350-0412.
Piatanzi takes deep pizza dive
Piatanzi is changing things up.
The restaurant at 1403 Girard NE has essentially doubled the number of pizza and beer choices, while doing away with its separate lunch and dinner menus. New pizzas include a $13 Cubano (pulled pork, ham, fontina and gruyere cheeses, white sauce, pepperoncini relish and honey dijon glaze) and the $17 Amare, which is topped with crab, shrimp and scallops.
The 22-tap beer lineup includes brews from local favorites like Bosque, Boxing Bear and Marble, plus choices from Laguintas, Stone and more.
Maggie Lukes, who opened the restaurant with her chef husband, Pete, in 2014, says the tweaks were partly done to attract more of the area’s college-age audience. But a little update was just due, she adds.
“At Terra (the Lukes’ former restaurant), Pete used to change the menu every season; I don’t think the market here really supports that much change, but it was time to freshen it up a little,” she says.
Customer requests also prompted Piatanzi to play with its sauces, incorporating potato starch instead of flour to thicken them and thus make them gluten-free. Gluten-free pizza crusts and pastas are also available.
“We have so many gluten-intolerant folks requesting this type of change, we wanted to accommodate all of our sensitive customers,” she says.
The updated menu is currently available only at the Girard location, though Lukes says it should eventually be implemented at the Heights location. too.
Speaking of pizza
Papa Murphy’s has its eyes on more of the Albuquerque pizza pie.
The Vancouver, Wash.-based chain known for its “take-and-bake” concept has two of those locations already under development in Los Lunas and Rio Rancho. and is seeking franchisees for four other “targeted intersections” around the metro, including Central/Coors and San Mateo/Highland SE, according to vice president of franchise sales Gary Payne. He said they’ve also identified 10 other locations around the state for possible stores, including in towns like Gallup, Española, Artesia and Ruidoso.
Payne said it’s part of a larger expansion plan for the chain, which already has 17 sites within the larger Albuquerque media market.
The growth is fueled in part by the brand’s distinction among major pizza chains. Whereas most of the rest go after similar customers, Papa Murphy’s appeals to families who want to grab something easy to make at home.
“We see it as a niche that’s pretty unique in the category,” he said. “There’s some opportunity there.”
The chain also accepts EBT, also known as food stamps. Payne declined to say what percentage of business those sales represent, though he noted it varies by market.
Albuquerque’s dessert scene just got a little bit … cooler.
Bahama Buck’s recently expanded with a third Duke City location at Montgomery Plaza, 4411 San Mateo NE. Franchisee Mike Dunivan opened the location with wife Rosemary and son Todd.
“We’ve always wanted to be in business for ourselves, and we felt we found the right type of family business and that’s what we wanted,” Mike Dunivan says.
Bahama Buck’s is known for its shaved ice, but also offers smoothies, coffees and more.
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