Taste of Samarkand
It’s packed at 830pm on a cold almost spring night in Queens. And it’s a Sunday. Kosher-Uzbeki food. Who would have guessed? Inside is a leafy trellised ceiling adorned with bunches of plastic grapes and draped colored sheers framing the crowd below. Two waitresses took turns approaching us in the entry way, each shaking their head sadly and glancing back to the very convivial room and brightly clad tables as if to say – what were you thinking? The buzz of camaraderie, clinking glasses and mouthwatering aromas were preparing to send us back to the black crusted snowbanks outside. We just stood there. We persisted. The waitresses had disappeared to handle fast moving plates and requests from the lucky groups seated and sated. A few moments later, a lovely woman, wearing seniority and not the traditional vibrantly colored caps, kuilak (tunic) and lozim (pants) like the others, came over and asked softly – would you wait 20 minutes? We’d wait longer. I really wanted in.
Luckily an extended family celebrating their patriarch’s birthday gathered their coats spread over several seats and motioned for us to join them while we waited for a proper table. Immediately they sliced two large pieces of birthday cake for the four of us, which thankfully we elected to save for after our meal. Because we ordered a lot. There were toddlers, adult children and Poppa, the birthday boy. I was on the verge of getting over-excited. It was like being in another country, in another time and the menu – fabulous. Big Poppa pushed an almost full bottle of vodka towards us. We demurred, said we couldn’t but he insisted saying…I have plenty of vodka at home and look at the name on the bottle, I can’t bring that into my house.
It’s BYO here and name not withstanding, it was especially kind of him.
The menu is written in Cyrillic, Latin and happily in English – sometimes with a poetic slant.
They have three breads and we didn’t skimp. The Noni Toki is thin and crispy, baked similarly to a matzoh, billowy and blackened. It’s 14 inches in diameter and curled just so by baking it on the underside of a traditional bowl-shaped Uzbeki frying pan on top of the oven until it crisps. Sometimes it’s referred to as hubcap matzoh.
Lepyoshka is puffy bread with a chewy glossy crust and an open air crumb. There was enough bread for leftovers at home the next day.
Their signature bread is Fatir, gratifying layers of buttery pastry dough. Beautiful. I tried to count them like the rings of a tree and hit 25 before I abandoned the plan so I could just eat it.
Detail of a single layer.
A splendid version of babaganoush – rich, smokey and creamy. It became a repetitive motion, bread-dip-bread-dip. The hummus was equally good. Had we realized how much food we’d actually ordered, we might have censored the dip-eat motion earlier. Oh well.
Koreans immigrated to eastern Russia in the 1860’s but in wartime almost 200,000 were banished by Stalin to what is now Kazakhastan and Uzbekistan. What remained of their culture became a significant influence on their food, their heritage merging with their newly adopted land creating a meld of ingredients. There are several Uzbek restaurants around town that focus on Korean/Russian inspired dishes but at Taste of Samarkand, this is the only one. Korean Carrot Salad á la the Silk Road looks so fresh but deceptively unsurprising. Marinated in traditional korean spices, honey, garlic, cayenne, coriander seeds and vinegar, the sweetness and acidity lent itself well to our cavalcade of meat dishes plus it turned out to be one of the best choices of the night.
A bracing Tashkent Salad is described as a perfect blend of boiled beef tongue, radishes, and greens but is further enhanced with crunchy green bits and crispy onion rings, all dressed with mayonnaise. They looove mayonnaise here.
Ochor, marinated mini eggplants stuffed with herbs and scallions. The eggplant was a little too cold as well as too al dente to fully enjoy but a lovely combination of flavors.
Sheepskins depicting hand painted landscapes of The Silk Road are rustically framed with sticks and decorate the walls.
Maybe my favorite description of any dish on any menu ever. Read the Nakhot Garmack. It’s poetry. And then there’s Jiz-biz…just saying.
Here’s the Jiz-biz with lamb chops and the kitchen’s very favorite add-in, house made potato chips. They turn up in many a surprising dish.
Juicy, seared, tender.
Ahhh, the Veal tail with its leached soul. That menu line from above.
My second favorite description with the dish below. Twelve hours for ten bucks.
The hardest working man in Uzbeki show business it seems. Flashy production numbers on the muted televisions and very hard working staff in the kitchen and dining room.
Georgian Lemonade which seems to be naturally flavored soda and unrelated to lemons. The pear was a bit less sweet than the atomic green tarragon flavor but both were actually good, even for all the tarragon’s nuclear possibilities. Not pictured is the tasty kool-aid looking fruit punch which is made from a mix of real fruits and listed on the menu as fruit compote. Our server graciously left a full pitcher on our table when one person ordered a glass. She said in case we’d all like to try it.
In contention for the most popular dish at our table of a zillion plates, Samsa (the Uzbek samosa) is a layered pastie wrapped around finely chopped veal, lamb, onion and spices…coriander, cumin, black and a little red hot pepper. Then they’re baked to a flaky floaty puff topped with sesame.
Herring with boiled potatoes, onions and lemons. Refreshing and just what you’d expect it to be. Combined with the Lepyoshka bread mentioned earlier, made for a perfect breakfast the next morning.
Uzbek Manti. Juicy dumplings. More finely chopped veal, lamb, onions and spices delicately wrapped in a fine pliant dough and steamed.
Smokey charred kebabs were salty and satisfying but I bet the meat skewers are where they shine. Beware the blades. You could duel for a kingdom with these.
The plates are beautiful, and the extremely kind staff seems to take pride in how everything looks. Our table must have been quite a challenge for them as our expanded order just kept coming.
Georgian tea completes everyone’s dinner and green tea is the custom choice. It’s fruity with a distinct apricot aroma.
Accompanying tea were these lovely bits of candied pineapple, sugared chickpeas and peanuts gilded with sesame and honey.
We missed out on the baklava as we had the aforementioned birthday cake so kindly shared by the family that let us sit with them. Vodka and cake. We scored. The chocolate was delicious.
From the outfits to decor and most importantly the food, Taste of Samarkand offers a glimpse and a taste of the ancient influences of the Silk Road from Uzbekistan to Persia, China and India. I was surprised that it wasn’t particularly spicy but no matter, flavors are very distinctive and the food just beautifully prepared.
This area of Queens serves a large population of Bukharan Jews and Uzbek immigrants. As noted in the New York Times, “Rasul Hoshimov, an Uzbek Muslim from Samarkand, runs the restaurant with David Abramov, a Bukharan Jew from Dushanbe in neighboring Tajikistan. The chefs — Mahmud Shokirov, who handles the meats, and Cholpon Turganbaeva, in charge of everything else — keep the kitchen kosher…” The restaurant is a perfect example in how to get along and a good idea for our present world to follow. Plus a wonderful spot for the rest of us to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Taste of Samarkand
62-16 Woodhaven Boulevard
Border of Middle Village and Rego Park, Queens
Open Sunday through Friday for lunch and dinner but only for dinner on Saturday
Special note: BYO