When I heard about the launch of Samarqand restaurant in London, it immediately went to the top of my to-eat list. It was described as being the first London outpost of a chain of Russian restaurants that serves food from Central Asia – more specifically, Uzbekhistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajiskistan, with influences from Russia and China. China? Yes, I suspected that the food from this region would be quite similar to the Chinese Muslim food I’d tasted in Beijing and I wanted more. A booking was duly made for two Sundays ago.
Despite arriving at the restaurant half an hour earlier than our 7pm booking, the place was already almost full with tall and slim and beautiful Russian/Central Asian young people. (Do they eat earlier over there? It wasn’t until 8 or 9pm when a few British clientele came in to eat.) Luckily our table was ready.
Things didn’t start well. A lovely warm nan bread came to our table with a yoghurt dip almost immediately but it was a good fifteen minutes before anybody bothered to come over to our table to take our order. Finally, one waitress from the other side of the room did come along. As Blai wanted a Coke, I asked for a small bottle of still water for myself. The waitress suggested that we order a large bottle as the price difference between the two were negligible as the water was brought over from Uzbekistan. Uzbek water, how thrilling! OK, large bottle it was.
This is what arrived.
If that water is from Uzbekistan, then I’m the Queen of England. Uzbek water FAIL.
Luckily, the service improved greatly after this with the appearance of a different waiter at our table and the food was all lovely.
We started by splitting the Grilled Choochwara Salad – Grilled meat dumplings with homemade soya dressing and mixed leaves (£6.95). Calling this a salad was a bit much though… it’s really a pile of tasty meaty dumplings with a few token leaves, not a bad thing in my books!
We also split our two main courses; family style eating seems to be encouraged at this restaurant with many tables choosing to eat like this. I’d heard good things about the Samarqand Plov – Traditional Central Asian Rice Dish cooked with succulent lamb, spices, onion and carrot served with Asian Tomato Salad (£11.50) – and so we absolutely had to order it (there was a similar dish at the Muslim Restaurant in Beijing but we didn’t try it then). I loved it (and it soon became a bit of an obsession for me) and read up more about when I got home – plov is the Russian word for pilaf and in Russian, they’re very fond of this dish, the national dish of Uzbekistan. The rice was cooked with onions and carrots and lamb and tasted of cumin and possibly a few other spices and was delicious. A few more pieces of lamb wouldn’t have gone amiss though.
That tomato salad on the side was quite refreshing with the rich rice.
The Besh Barmak – Handmade pasta sheets boiled in meat broth served with salt beef and black peppered shallots (£9.95) – also tempted us and that too was duly ordered. This dish was even more homely than I expected, being just a layer of pasta sheets topped with lots of boiled beef. Still, it was rather comforting in all its plainness.
There was nothing Central Asian about the desserts but as we felt like something sweet, we tried the Zebra Chocolate Cake (£5.90). It’s a bog standard store bought cake – nothing to write home about.
The food and the restaurant atmostphere are strangely at odds with each other. On one hand, you have a menu of extremely homey dishes, all presented in a very village-y manner. On the other hand, you have a very swish and modern room with equally polished customers. I guess they’re all looking for a taste of home while still feeling rather modern and hip – well, that’s the only explanation I can think of. I’m not much bothered by the surroundings but I did love the food! The service was generally charming, if a little confused at the beginning. There’s still a lot on the menu that I want to try.
Strangely, the prices on the menu in the restaurant are exactly a pound lower than those listed online.
18 Thayer Street
London W1U 3JY