Taste of Samarkand Is a Silk Road Oasis in Queens
The bread looks ready to levitate. Called noni toki, it is matzo-thin, a blistered expanse 14 inches across, the edges uplifted as if in supplication. At Taste of Samarkand, this is achieved by slapping and patting dough around the inverted underbelly of a kazan, a high-sloped Uzbek frying pan akin to a Chinese wok, then baking it over the stove until hard and crisp.
The city of Samarkand, founded in the seventh century B.C. and now part of modern Uzbekistan, was once a stop on the Silk Road for traders bearing spices and culinary traditions from China, Persia and India.
Taste of Samarkand, which opened last August, stands on the border between Middle Village, a historically Italian neighborhood, and Rego Park in Queens. Thousands of Uzbek immigrants live in Rego Park and adjoining Forest Hills, many of them Bukharan Jews who trace their ancestry in Central Asia back 2,500 years.
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, and the restaurant serves lunch and dinner every day except Saturday, when it is closed until evening.
The menu is written in Cyrillic and Latin script, with few details beyond each dish’s name. The waitresses, wearing the traditional kuilak (long tunic) and lozim (pants) in a maze of colors, are patient and often poetic in their explanations. One entree, listed as nakhot garmack, was described as “soft soup”; it proved to be veal tail braised for an eternity with chickpeas, until its soul leached into the surrounding broth. This is meant to be soaked up with slices of galaosiyo, crusty bread beautifully cratered with air holes.
Some of the more intriguing items on the menu — like halisa, a slow-cooked meat porridge — are available only in certain seasons. It doesn’t matter; there is plenty to please, starting with achichuk, a deceptively simple assembly of tomatoes and onions booby-trapped with jalapeños, enough to temporarily short-circuit the taste buds, and a sweet-sour julienne of carrots, heavy on garlic and vinegar and indebted to the Koreans who settled in the Russian Far East and were forcibly relocated to Central Asia under Stalin’s reign.
Under a lattice of mayonnaise, a salad of beef tongue in pliant strips and crunchy cucumber and matchstick potatoes was refreshing and lighter than the sum of its ingredients. Manti, Chinese dumplings writ large, had yielding skins and steamy centers of ground beef, lamb and pent-up broth. Samsa, meat pastries that elsewhere I’ve found bulky and inert, were flaky and improbably airy.
I could have eaten only soup and gone home satisfied: osh-potche, each spoonful of liquid fat clinging to the tongue; mastava, the Uzbek counterpart to Georgian kharcho, thick with rice and tomatoes, its warmth radiating along the ribs; shurpa, exhaling dill.
Kebabs, thrust on long skewers that suggest blades, are hot gulps of salt and smoke. Meat is treated properly here, with respect but not too much fuss. Lamb anchors a messy plov (rice pilaf) alongside a whole bulb of garlic. Chicken is flattened under a weight in a pan, mired in its own juices, and rivals the city’s pricier versions. Only the fish — slabs of carp, deep-fried and sloshed with a pulpy mix of garlic and cilantro — was a spongy disappointment.
For dessert, the waitress said, “Baklava.” It was not a question. Presented as a tidy triangle, not too sticky or sweet, the pastry was best mediated with sips of green tea. Everyone was drinking tea, accompanied by an entourage of candied pineapple, sugared chickpeas and peanuts shellacked in sesame seeds and honey.
Don’t be dissuaded by the restaurant’s unassuming exterior, dominated by a TV in the window that beams images of Uzbek food to passers-by. Inside is an arbor, with dangling bunches of grapes and leaves peeking through a trellis on the ceiling. Scenes from the Silk Road are painted on sheepskin and tied to frames made of crossed branches. A rubob, a long-necked native lute, leans on a back shelf.
It takes time for a meal to unfold, but that is fine. On a recent evening, little girls in shimmering ankle-length dresses abandoned their mothers’ table and danced around the room to the serenades of the Uzbek pop singer Shahzoda. I wanted to, too.