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  The Birth of Rice-A-Roni: The Roots of the Story  
Armen Baliantz
  The roots of Rice-a-Roni were of interest to us for so many reasons.  Friendship being one of them. I have done casting for Francis Ford Coppola on several of his films.  His librarian, sometimes script supervisor, and now producer, Anahid Nazarian is of Armenian descent, and the music and food of her family is very much a part of her life.  When we were filmmaking The Rainmaker in 1996 with Matt Damon, Jon Voight, Mary Kay Place among others, Anahid created a huge Armenian feast at my house for the cast and crew.  Her beautiful pilaf and tpov tolma, and an eggplant dish called mutabal and the spirit that she cooked with stuck with me.  This was long before we dreamed up Hidden Kitchens, and when we did, we knew we wanted to find an Armenian story because of the way Anahid shared her culture and food.  
Tosca's San Francisco
  We also were drawn to this story because of knowing two legendary San Francisco women, Armen Baliantz and her daughter, Jeannette Etheredge. Jeannette owns Tosca Cafe, the nearly 90 year old landmark bar of San Francisco and her mother owned one of the most vibrant and delicious restaurants in the history of the town, Bali's.  Many made the pilgrimage to Bali's for her Armenian rack of lamb marinated in pomegranate juice.  In the early years of The Kitchen Sisters, when I first moved to San Francisco I would go into Tosca to listen to the jukebox that time forgot, with the Ink Spots and The Mills Brothers and Verdi arias, and to talk to Armen and try and discover her beauty secrets, her skin was soft and shimmering into her 80's.  Ponds was what she told me.  She would also tell stories of the Armenian massacre, and her parents exodus, and the saga of her family, and then how she came to America and opened the north beach restaurant was the focal point of so much of the dance world and bohemian world of San Francisco for years, Bali's.    
  When Armen died in 2007, Jeannette, in homage to her mother's spirit and legendary cooking, created a kind of recipe "holy" card with some of Armen's most revered dishes on one side, and her image on the other, including her pilaf.   These were passed out at her memorial, which was Jeannette and her family held one night at  the Tosca.  
  Armen Baliantz

Armen Baliantz
January 9, 1921
August 2, 2007

Rice Pilaf

Ingredients (serves 4):
2 cups long grain rice
2 sticks unsalted butter
3-4 cups chicken stock
optional- 1/2 cup dried apricots (diced) and/or pine nuts

Rinse rice under cold water until clean of starch, cover with water and let soak overnight.
In a pot, melt butter over low heat.
Drain the rice and add to the pot, stir gently to coat all the grains with butter.
Add enough stock to cover the rice about an inch.
Turn up heat to medium high to bring pot to a boil.
When boiling, cover, reduce heat to low and simmer about 15-20 minutes until done.
If desired, add diced apricots and/or pine nuts in the last 5 minutes of cooking.

  Armen Baliantz - Remembrance from the San Francisco Chronicl / Steve Winn  

Joyful owner of Bali's restaurant, warm-hearted friend of the great.

She took Rudolf Nureyev under her wing when he defected from the Soviet Union in 1961. She pulled the strings that got fellow ballet superstar and defector Mikhail Baryshnikov his California's driver's license. She befriended filmmakers and street people, novelists and politicians, and whisked them all together as if fame and social distinctions were meaningless. And she made a memorable rack of lamb marinated in pomegranate juice.

Armen Baliantz, the child of Armenian refugees who endured four years of internment in China and later turned San Francisco restaurant ownership into a joyous social art form at the eponymous Bali's, died of natural causes Thursday night at St. Mary's Hospital.

Armen Bali, or Madam Bali, as she was widely known, was 86 and had been ill for some time. But as people remembered her on Friday, it was as if her transformative and magnanimous spirit couldn't possibly be extinguished.

Her legacy, several of them said, shines on most clearly in her daughter Jeannette Etheredge, owner and proprietor of the famed Tosca Cafe in North Beach. There, from one generation to the next, runs a vein of San Francisco society that marries glamour and celebrity to the cohesive warmth of village life grounded in open-hearted hospitality, family and food. Bali's closed in 1985. But the long nights filled with laughter, friendship, Russian vodka and that inevitable rack of lamb live on.

"She was a very strong and opinionated woman with a very soft heart," Baryshnikov said by telephone. "She was a controlled Bohemian who loved people and was also a very good businesswoman."

"I can see her holding court in at that corner table," film director Philip Kaufman said of Baliantz, "reading people's fortunes in their coffee grounds. She was very bright and a big reader, always talking about Russian novels. She had a great sense of humor. I thought she was very sexy. You could let your hair down with Armen; there was this innate naturalness about her."

"Everyone fell in love with her," said "Beach Blanket Babylon" producer Jo Schuman Silver. "Men, women, everyone wanted to be in her presence."

"She had a great huge heart," said San Francisco Ballet master Betsy Erickson, who attended parties for dancers at Bali's in the 1970s and 1980s. "She always had a hug and a big smile for everyone."

Baliantz's generosity extended to money, material goods, even the clothes off her back. After one trip to Russia, Etheredge recalled, her mother was riding with Nureyev in a Paris taxicab and sweating in the heat. When Nureyev suggested she take off her coat, Baliantz refused. "It turns out," Etheredge said, "that she had given away the last of her underwear to the maid in the airport bathroom."

Etheredge said her mother "was the kind of person that everybody she met became friends with her. And she never lost those friendships." While Russian dancers always held a special place, friendships could come from almost anywhere. Her social spiral included labor leader Harry Bridges, sculptor Benny Bufano, Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, California Assembly Speaker and later San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, and writer William Saroyan. Baliantz introduced the dancer Natalia Makarova, another Soviet defector, to her future husband, Edward Karkar.

"I will always be grateful to her for that," Makarova said in a statement. She praised her friend of 35 years for her generosity, kindness and joie de vivre.

"She was the most feminine, charming woman of exceptional beauty. She never looked her age."

Schuman Silver was at a party Baliantz threw for her own doctors about 10 years ago. "She had a doctor for every organ," Schuman Silver recalled, "and they were all there. It was hysterical. They were all discussing her like she was this specimen. But you know something? It was a great, great party."

Armen Psakian was born on Jan. 9, 1921, to Armenian parents who had fled to Russia and then to China after the 1915-1917 massacres by the Turks. She spent her early years in Harbin, Manchuria; her father was a journalist for a French Armenian-language newspaper. Growing up, Armen spoke Armenian, Russian and Mandarin. She married Aram Baliantz, who was in the import-export business in Tsingtao, in 1939, and their two children, Jeannette and Arthur, were born in the 1940s.

The family was held in a prison camp by the Japanese for four years during the war. Baliantz, who learned English and French during that time, spoke about experiences in China in Peter Kaufman's 1994 documentary "China: The Wild East." She remained friends for life with one of the paratroopers who liberated the camp.

After the war, the Baliantz family worked in a Tsingtao confectionary business. The United States had tightened restrictions on immigration from Communist countries, so the family left China and spent two years in a refugee camp in the Philippines. They finally arrived in San Francisco in 1952. At the time, Baliantz said that although she had an emerald ring on her hand, the only cash she and her husband had to their names was a 50-cent piece: She tossed it into the bay as their ship passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. Armen and Aram Baliantz divorced in 1959.

Using the emerald ring as collateral for a bank loan, Baliantz opened the original Bali's on Sansome Street in the early 1950s, and Bufano became her first celebrity customer. The restaurant moved to Pacific and Battery in the mid-1970s and was a success from the start.

"There were some up-and-down years," said Etheredge of her mother's business, "but it always made money. And she always had friends to help her out when times got a little tough."

When her son Arthur was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1983, Baliantz decided to close the restaurant. Two years later, she did. Devastated as she was by the loss of her son, Baliantz remained, characteristically, both tough and warmhearted. Etheredge remembered her mother saying of a psychiatrist who was supposed to help her with the grieving, "He's got problems." Later she taught the psychiatrist how to cook her signature rack of lamb. She was a fixture at Tosca's in her retirement years.

"The flip side of Armen was that she didn't suffer fools," Kaufman said. "She was very opinionated."

As Baryshnikov says of her in a forthcoming book, "she was exotic and straightforward and loud and streetsmart."

In addition to her daughter, Baliantz is survived by her daughter-in-law, Genevieve Baliantz, and grandchildren Peter Baliantz, Devin Etheredge, Eric Baliantz and Zoe Baliantz, all of San Francisco. Baliantz, who requested that she have no funeral, will be remembered in a memorial service at Tosca on Jan. 9, 2008. That would have been her 87th birthday.

The family requests that donations in her honor be made to the St. Mary's Foundation at St. Mary's Hospital, 450 Stanyan St., San Francisco, CA 94117.

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