Whose beki? Uzbeki

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.

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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.

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It’s BYO here and name not withstanding, it was especially kind of him.

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Great spout.

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The menu is written in Cyrillic, Latin and happily in English – sometimes with a poetic slant.

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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.

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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.

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Detail of a single layer.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sheepskins depicting hand painted landscapes of The Silk Road are rustically framed with sticks and decorate the walls.

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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.

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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.

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Juicy, seared, tender.

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Ahhh, the Veal tail with its leached soul. That menu line from above.

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My second favorite description with the dish below. Twelve hours for ten bucks.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Samsa innards…

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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.

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Uzbek Manti. Juicy dumplings. More finely chopped veal, lamb, onions and spices delicately wrapped in a fine pliant dough and steamed.

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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.

Vegetable -Kebab

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Wild Salmon-Kebab

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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.

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Georgian tea completes everyone’s dinner and green tea is the custom choice. It’s fruity with a distinct apricot aroma.

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Accompanying tea were these lovely bits of candied pineapple, sugared chickpeas and peanuts gilded with sesame and honey.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Taste of Samarkand

62-16 Woodhaven Boulevard

Border of Middle Village and Rego Park, Queens

718.672.2121

Open Sunday through Friday for lunch and dinner but only for dinner on Saturday

Special note: BYO

 

 

 

 

 

Bruno’s…On Fire

Bruno Pizza

Sometimes you light a fire with a match and sometimes you get really lucky and a couple of talented chefs rub their hands together and sparks fly. That’s what we have here. The combo of Dave Gulino, Justin Slojkowski (formerly the innovators at Box Kite) along with partner Demien Repucci have lighted a blaze that is igniting the pizza community, as well as focusing on just downright imaginative beautiful food. These guys are beyond creative and the hands on, charming, low profile attitude infuses every bite, every design flourish you ingest. This is no foam to table enterprise.

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There’s whimsy in this plywood lair. From the wacky yet no nonsense tables and chairs hand built by the guys themselves to dishes that include ingredients like black cashew cream, succulents and yes…handpicked by some of the posse members in actual Bushwick, Brooklyn…mulberries. Locavore at it’s dastardly finest.

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The dishes, the actual plates…I mean really. Love them.

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We started with three out of the current six appetizers and I don’t have one favorite, I have …uh huh…three. Damn, they’re all good.

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Local fluke with snap peas, uni, ocean herbals, mulberry and quinoa. Glorious. But here’s the thing, this is where the mulberries come into play. Chef Dave and cohorts picked them in Bushwick. They had an idea and they ran with it. The inspiration and thinking that goes into their menu is what makes their particular world tilt on its axis and you happily roll with it. They’re tap dancing through their kitchen on the head of a pin and suffice it to say – lick it and stick it.

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Fairytale Eggplant was so simple but perfectly constructed and absolutely delicious. With shishito, opal basil, nutritional yeast and black cashew. The black cashew, which included an aspect of vegetable charcoal was reminiscent of the Beverly Hillbillies theme song where they sing “…black gold, Texas tea” and this here is black gold.

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Definitely some of the most perfectly cooked diver scallops I’ve ever had. Served with local beans, sheep’s milk yogurt and amaranth.

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Something that Bruno’s brings to the pizza tavola is their new and very impressive Kickstarter raised machine for milling their own 00 flour, which is also domestically sourced. I’m proud to say that I made a minimal but supportive contribution and got a free pizza for my efforts. Very kind. Their months of developing the right recipe and techniques for their flour/crust was well worth it. Whatever they’re doing with that machine in the basement, they’re doing it right. A soft crackle as your teeth grazes the edge of your slice, and then that neapolitan chew of delight, a pillowy inside to the light crunch, with a flavor of wheat berries and a hint of whiskey.

We had three pizzas and I look forward to trying the others before their seasonal menu likely changes. Any of the pizzas can be made as vegetarian too.

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And the detail…

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Local mushrooms, béchamel and scallions. Holy funghi.

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Summer greens with ricotta, carrot top pesto, zucchini, noodlefish, chili.

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A Margherita that broke the routine barrier for several reasons. Astonishing mozzarella from Capouto Brothers, canned tomatoes, fermented tomatoes and whaa?? lovage. These guys invite you to dine to the beat of their different drum.

Because that wasn’t enough food, ha! we had to add a pasta. A distinctive, toothsome, wondrous pasta.

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The Bucatini with fresh corn, gold bar, squash blossoms and spring onion is summer on the plate, and a pool party in your mouth.

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Olive oil gelato with charred blueberry compote, borage powder and cashew was layers of softness shrouded in pings of varying flavors and made for a meltingly gorgeous finale.

Design elements are perfunctory chic. A cacophony of plywood and innovation. It’s spare, thoughtful, practical, not entirely uncomfortable (!) and provides the canvas for the stellar cooking which is really why you came.

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Bruno’s has employed the burgeoning idea of a no tipping policy recently done at Dirt Candy. Customers pay a 20% administration fee included on the check in lieu of any gratuity. More forward thinking, pay your employees fairly. Also, at the moment it’s BYOB. I’m sure that will change soon when their liquor license comes through but it’s always fun to bring your libation of choice.

I had arrived earlier than my two compatriots for a girl’s night and had time to peruse the small but engrossing menu. As my first pal arrived I said, here’s what my dream ordering would be. It might be a lot, but I don’t think I can give anything up, think we can handle it? She glanced through the choices and said, oh yeah, we can do this. So glad we did.

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Bruno’s Pizza
204 East 13th Street
212.598.3080

Monday – Saturday 630-midnight