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Uzbekistan: Lunch with Borat's Neighbors


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Uzbekistan: Lunch with Borat's Neighbors

Woolsey | Jun 29, 2007 08:35 PM

After every office lunch, the question seems to be, "What's the next place?" The first place was 25 Degrees, then came Lucky Devils - both close to the office, both places my coworkers had never gone - then Mozza, then Palms Thai. So after Palms, the question came up, and my reply was, "Have you guys been to Uzbekistan?" (I already knew the answer: "What's Uzbekistan?")

I hadn't been to Uzbekistan in seven years, but I remembered it fondly. It's been on my I-really-should-go-back-there list. Working so close to it gave me the perfect impetus to return. We loaded the table up family-style, as is probably best at Uzbekistan. The prices can be a little eye-popping, but the portions are generous, and this is food for sharing, anyway. The Asiatic Delight salad was as good as I remembered it from years ago, with roasted red peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, and mounds of shredded carrot dressed with a vinaigrette heavy on the fresh dill. The samsa was flaky pastry filled with chunks of lamb and onions and nicely spiced with what might have been a touch of cumin. The seasoning wasn't exactly South Asian or Persian, but it wasn't Russian, either. It was definitely right there between the European and Middle Eastern traditions. The parmuda were baked dumplings with sesame seeds, looking more like a trio of buns, filled with the same lamb filling as the samsa. (I was hoping to get a steamed dumpling I'd had the last time I was there, but I'd misordered. Oops.) The last starter we had were the blini with caviar and sour cream. The blini were actually large thin French-style crêpes, not like the smaller Russian-style blini, and the caviar was salmon caviar, not sturgeon. (At nine dollars, did anyone expect beluga?)

The salad and lamb appetizers were devoured with glee. The blini were more of, well, let's call it a cultural experience. The popping of the salmon eggs in the mouth was quite a topic of conversation, but it was fun to try, and each blin was eaten. The real hit, though, was the Uzbek bread, a round of dense bread, something like a hybrid between yeast bread and a biscuit, that comes with a container of herbed cream cheese placed in a depression made in the dough. A fine meal could be had from one of Uzbekistan's big salads and a round of that marvelous hearty bread.

We were already completely sated, but we still had our two entrees to eat. One of them was the lamb shashlik, four skewers of marinated lamb. Kabobs are nothing original in L.A. given all the Armenians, Lebanese, and Iranians in this city (not to mention the variations made by other ethnicities), but Uzbekistan's shashlik is quality meat, well-flavored, cooked medium and perfectly tender. It's definitely well above what one finds in the food court kabob stand. The shashlik came with roasted zucchini, but the real surprise was the potato, which just looked to be a skinned roasted spud. It was addictive, as if they had found a way to make giant French fries out of a whole potato.

And the second dish was, of course, plov. Anyone who reads any review of this place will almost certainly come across a mention of plov. When I came all those years ago, I got the plov, and my recollection was that it was the one letdown. But it's the iconic dish, the thing to eat. Well, the plov seemed much better this time. I don't know if it's that it was better, or that I was just more disposed to eating it, but I really liked it. We all did. The stewed lamb was sweet, piled atop rice loaded with more shredded carrots studded with whole peppercorns and the occasional chickpea. It's served with a side of a vinegary, slightly sweet carrot-and-cabbage slaw that reminded me of a non-spicy version of Salvadorian curtido.

As full as we were from the all the food that came before the shashlik and plov, we managed to pack away all that food, too. With tax and tip, for five people, it came out to around twenty bucks per person. (Too bad we were at work. Vodka really goes well with plov.)

One drawback about going to Uzbekistan for lunch is that to place really doesn't put its best, garishly overwrought face forward during the daytime. I remember that great, blaring Uzbek disco music, the loud diners shouting over it, the shifty-eyed men with five-o' clock (A.M.) shadows in trenchcoats, chain smoking over a shot of vodka on the patio, giving it a "my dinner with the KGB" vibe. Uzbekistan isn't as opaque as some of the Russian places further west down Sunset - those places that just beam out "if you can't read Cyrillic, don't even think about it" - but there was still a lot of great expatriate energy there. You know a place comes alive at night when there's a disco ball hanging from the middle of the ceiling, the tables are set with shotglasses instead of water goblets, and the advertised closing time is "until the last spoon of plov."

I'm glad I got back to Uzbekistan today, and I'm going to make it a point not to make it seven years before my next return.

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