Fimy Ishkhanian is Syrian and not. The chef-owner of Apricot Stone, a cozy 16-month-old Middle Eastern BYOB in Northern Liberties, was born to refugees of the Armenian genocide in 1958 in Aleppo, where “our community was set up so Armenians had everything we needed: Armenian schools, churches, restaurants, mechanics,” Ishkhanian recalled. It was so self-sufficient and tightly knit, “there were even some Armenians who didn’t speak Arabic.”
Ishkhanian does speak Arabic, as well as Armenian, English, Turkish and French, which she picked up in Canada after moving to Toronto with her brother when he joined the US Army in 1973. She met her husband there and relocated to Philadelphia in 1981, where she opened Fimy’s Kitchen, a Main Line Middle Eastern deli, and, inadvertently, a chickpea school.
“We were educating people on what hummus was everyday,” remembered Ishkhanian’s son, Ara, who grew up in the business, doing his homework there after school and working the cash register on the weekends. “We were probably one of five stores you could buy hummus from in Philadelphia.”
Yeah, things have changed. In America, where hummus has become a major food group. And in Syria, a country dealing with genocide again.
Fimy’s Kitchen was pioneering: A woman-owned, immigrant-owned business selling hummus and its meze mates to suburban Philadelphians in the pre-Zahav — hell, the pre-Sabra — era. Ishkhanian grew her business to include a robust catering operation, but closed in 2007, when the historic indoor market in which she operated shut down. She and her husband, Hagop, moved back to Toronto, while Ara finished his degree in business management and entrepreneurship at Temple, confident in a future culinary opportunity. “I knew my mom’s talent potential was untapped,” he said.
Now, Ara and his parents are partners in Apricot Stone, where six nights a week, 59-year-old Ishkhanian cooks food that, like her, is Syrian and not.
Armenian family recipes passed down through female generations are layered over the vibrant, multiethnic tableau of Middle Eastern culinary tradition. So there’s smooth, nutty hummus and smoky, creamy baba ghanoush, of course, but unlike at a Greek or Israeli or Turkish restaurant, Ishkhanian’s purees are freckled with fruity-hot Aleppo pepper, the famous export of her hometown. Midnight-green dried mint and madzoon, the lush Armenian fermented-milk yogurt, makes her lebni and jahjuk distinct from other nations’ labneh and tzatziki. The details make the difference, literally.
Apricot Stone’s menu, available for take-out as well as dine-in, is divided into cold and hot appetizers, salads, sandwiches and plates, all of which comes with rice, a choice of dip and salad and white or wheat pita from Soumaya & Sons, a well-known Lebanese bakery in Allentown. (Day-old pitas are turned into chips that beg to be sold by the bag.) The lamb kebab plate, starring skewers of domestic Lancaster leg cubes marinated with parsley, onion, black and red pepper, are the most expensive item on the menu — at $16. These overall low prices make inconsistencies easier to swallow. The lamb was perfectly cooked one night, overcooked another.
Northern Liberties residents seem hip to Apricot’s value, packing the dining room in googly-eyed twosomes, multigenerational family gatherings and work-related get-togethers on both my visits. Warm energy pervades the space, which is not something people say often about the Piazza-adjacent Liberties Walk development, where tenant turnover is high and restaurants often struggle. A downside to the crowds: Service can be brusque. One busy night, while we ordered and asked questions, my server rattled her pen against her pad like she was auditioning for the role of a diner waitress stereotype.
Fortunately, enough familial warmth comes through in the cooking.
With the kebabs — in addition to the lamb, I had the halal chicken and the ground-beef luleh (it’s similar to Turkish kofte) — Ishkhanian isn’t working within the lavish spice collection of Zahav, or even the agreeably loudmouthed cilantro-acid marinades of Kanella Grill, but she still turns out something flavorful and delicious. There’s a nakedness to her canon. There’s not much to hide behind.
As a general guide, you’re good ordering anything with cheese. The flaky boreg (borek) triangles reveal creamy centers of melted mozzarella, tangy farmer’s cheese and an Armenian cheese Ishkhanian makes in house. (The all-feta spanakopita is good, too, but if you have to pick one cheesy phyllo thing, it should be the boreg.) The “Mediterranean grilled cheese” features the same fresh cheese, layered inside a pita with mint, caraway and Aleppo pepper, then cooked in an olive oiled pan till crispy. It will make you wonder what the hell kind of sad grilled cheese your parents fed you growing up. I’m also in love with the assertive muhamara, a vermilion paste of roasted peppers and walnuts bound with lip-smacking pomegranate molasses. (This one doesn’t have cheese, but don’t hold that against it.)
Don’t miss the viscous Armenian coffee, which is brewed in a traditional jazzve stovetop carafe and depending on the blend Ishkhanian sources from her Canadian contacts, sometimes contains a hint of cardamom. Coffee and a square of not-too-sweet baklava is a fine way to end a meal. The other desserts deserve better than the plastic deli containers in which they’re served. Cinnamon, pistachio and a touch of orange blossom water infuse the wonderful rice pudding. The anoush is a thick, earthy vegan wheat porridge studded with raisins and — the restaurant’s namesake — apricots.
Ara shares a story about the name: “A few years ago the singer Eva Rivas competed in the Eurovision song contest representing Armenia. Her song title was ‘Apricot Stone,’ and the meaning is if you take the pit and plant it even when you are far away from your home, you will be returned back to your roots.”
In a way that’s what Fimy Ishkhanian has spent her professional career doing. Philly is richer for it.
2 Quakers – Very Good*
Executive Chef: Fimy Ishkhanian
Owners: Fimy, Hagop and Ara Ishkhanian
General Manager: Ara Ishkhanian
Sous Chef: Manik A.
Line Cook: Hovsep H.
Servers: Anie A., Taline D.