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Among proper names that suggest height or loftiness, few have a grander pedigree than Ararat, the moniker of the mountain or mountain range where, according to the book of Genesis, Noah's ark was supposed to have made landfall after riding out the flood. Today's Mount Ararat, a volcano rising nearly 17,000 feet above sea level, lies in northeastern Turkey, near that country's borders with Iran and Armenia. Perhaps Noah and his menagerie washed up there, perhaps not; biblical scholars seem to love a good controversy, and various contrarian speculations bring the ark to ground on this or that mountaintop in Iran.
Whatever. While we wait for intrepid researchers to sort it all out with their satellite photos and expeditions and deconstructions of scripture, we can enjoy ourselves at Ararat, a Mediterranean tapas place opened by Koch Salgut in March at a Castro location not quite 17,000 feet above sea level but far enough above the street — 18th Street, if it matters, and for the people watchers among us it does — to provide a definite aerie experience. For a number of years the space housed North Beach expatriate la Mooné, and while that restaurant didn't set any longevity records in the Castro, it did survive long enough in its comfy second-story digs to suggest that lack of a street-level presence isn't necessarily fatal — not, at least, in a location with as much foot traffic as you find at 18th Street and Castro. Look for the sidewalk placard and the broad white staircase in need of a paint job and you are there, in a dining room the shape of a fat L with a groined ceiling and surveillance-friendly windows.
The chef, Caskun Bektas, has cooked in Istanbul, so there is a definite Turkish-metropolitan spin to the food. He turns out some dishes you aren't likely to come across anywhere else, but even the more usual "Mediterranean" stuff confirms the sharp rise in Castro cooking standards in recent years. Despite the many distractions of the neighborhood's street theater, people expect better food and know what to look for — and at Ararat, they are getting it.
Oddly, the one item on the menu we weren't enthusiastic about is the first one listed and bears a distinctively Turkish name. It is ezme ($7), a mushy blend of barbecued eggplant, tomatoes, lemon juice, garlic, and roasted red bell peppers. We found it to be a little bitter, which is hardly an unfamiliar issue when dealing with eggplant.
But ... the rest of the tapas ("mezes" is the authentic term) ranged from good to superb. (You can get a mixed platterful with warm pita triangles for $13; individually, they are all in the $5 to $7 range.) Falafel, tabbouleh, dolma, and hummus were all as expected, while the savory pastries — flutes of whole-wheat filo dough filled with feta cheese and herbs and crisped in oil — were like something from a Pepperidge Farm package and seemed to expand the field of possibilities for a cuisine that has come to occupy a spot in this country much like the one Mexican food held a generation ago. Restaurants serving the foods of the eastern Mediterranean have proliferated in recent years, and more and more people like the food and are comfortable ordering it, at least if they stay within the well-lit bounds of the familiar: dolma, shawarma, and falafel, nothing weird or unpronounceable, please.
Speaking of which: I have never had a preparation quite like Bektas's signature dish, beyti kebab ($16). I have eaten and loved kebabs of various kinds, of course, and I like lavash (the Syrian flatbread), so I expected I would like "lavash rolls filled with delicate ground sirloin served with garlic flavored yogurt and marinara." And I did. But I did not expect the beauty of the form. The lavash had been rolled around the meat like a wrapper — the meat wasn't ground, incidentally, but it was surpassingly tender: filet mignon? — and then the package had been cut into thin coins that fanned out nicely on the plate. It was a little like a miniature beef Wellington, with yogurt instead of mushroom sauce.
The kitchen's other savory showstopper is a shrimp casserole ($8), a crock of prawns swimming in a thick tomato sauce with bits of green bell pepper, caramelized onions, and mushrooms under a cap of melted mozzarella. This dish seemed more Provençal than Turkish, but it disappeared so fast it was hard to be sure. Running respectable races in the same heat were kakavia ($10), a stew of salmon, clams, mussels, shrimp, and scallops in a watery pepper-paprika broth, and kalamarika ($8), batter-fried calamari accompanied by batter-fried slices of lemon and potato, which were hard to tell apart without biting into them.
Also respectable, if not quite memorable, were a braised lamb shank ($18) served with couscous and an herbed tomato-Chianti sauce and mercimek kofte ($6), a hummus relative with red lentils substituted for chickpeas. Weaker — in fact disappointing — was the Ararat salad, a fey compilation of mixed greens, dried apricots, and walnuts, with a crotton of fried goat cheese on top. The promised balsamic vinaigrette was undetectable. Were we being set up for dessert?
If so, we must be grateful, for the dessert menu too includes a sublime dish: the nightingale's nest ($5), a coil of baklava filled with lavender honey and finished with whipped cream and scatterings of crushed pistachios. Baklava so often flirts with being a cliché, like flan, but in imaginative and conscientious hands it can sing a lovely song, an ethereal melody from on high. SFBG
Dinner: Mon.–Fri., 4–11 p.m.
Continuous service: Sat.–Sun., 11 a.m.–11 p.m.
4072 18th St., SF
Not wheelchair accessible