Cocktails and Dinner at Samarkand, Charlotte Street:
I had no idea what to expect from Samarkand. A look at the map shows Uzbekistan as a landlocked country, north of Afghanistan. Once part of the USSR, the country, and Samarkand in particular, is known for its Islamic architecture. Uzbek cuisine is new to me, though a quick search on google suggests that the food will have much in common with the dishes I enjoyed recently in Istanbul and with the cuisines of neighbouring countries like Armenia and Georgia.
The restaurant itself is charming, with unmistakably Asian decor yet a contemporary London vibe. I particularly like the open kitchen with vibrant blue glass panels and copper pans.
There’s a comprehensive cocktail, wine and spirits list – and a selection of vodka infusions that are better chosen in discussion with the team at Samarkand who will ask you about your own palate – whether you like sweet or bitter flavours for example. Fabio, the mixologist and bar manager at Samarkand was passionate and enthusiastic about the range of vodka infusions he had created.
My welcome cocktail, a Nayna, involved rose champagne, quince sorbet, and dried cherries. It had just the right level of acidity for me, I’m not a fan of overly sweet cocktails, but this was delicious and refreshing.
We munched our way through rather a large bowl of homemade pickles too. And some bread with rather delicious herbed butter.
While there’s a part of me that believes we should have tried the Samarkand Plov, neither of us felt in the mood for a dish which is essentially a regional version of a pilaf. According to the menu, it is the national dish of Uzbekistan and a recipe that has been passed from generation to generation. Beef or lamb short rib cooked with yellow carrots, onions, chickpeas, barberries and rice, it sounded delicious but the sort of food best suited to a large appetite, a very cold day or (preferably) both. Apparently, you should drink shots of vodka as you eat it…something that would definitely have been a recipe for disaster in my case.
Instead, we ordered a portion of beef and lamb manti, traditional dumplings made with dry aged beef sirloin and lamb rump and served with a chili sauce. These are served in Turkey too, and they are not dissimilar to the momo of Nepal or even to gyoza. I really enjoyed them, especially alongside our shashlik of yellowfin tuna, which came with a deliciously herby rice mixture, slices of sweet yellow pepper and a yogurt dressing
For our main course, we ordered one portion of Jiz Biz (pan fried rack of lamb with potato cake and fresh herb and onion salad) and one portion of chicken tabaka (pan fried marinated baby chicken).
The lamb was beautiful, meltingly tender and had a slightly tangy fruity taste (barberry?). We both thoroughly enjoyed the dish, though whether it would be recognized in Uzbekistan is dubious. There, I believe the dish involves a mixture of various parts of the lamb (kidney, liver, heart and sweetbreads) to complement the meat.
Chicken tabaka was another success, a wonderfully buttery, crisp-skinned baby chicken that, in theory, would have been seasoned and marinated with paprika, garlic, turmeric, chili peppers and onion then flattened under a brick before being fried in a skillet and served with lemon dressing This version had that slight sweetness again, perhaps pomegranate molasses?
There was quite a lot of food on the table at this stage but in an effort to move away from a meatfest we added an achichuk, traditional salad made with heritage tomatoes, onions, and herbs. For me, this was the weakest dish of the evening mostly because the tomatoes just didn’t seem ripe. Having said that, my favourite alternative, truffle potato, while sounding delicious would have been much too heavy.
My dessert of chilli and thyme poached pear was both visually stunning and delicious to eat. The lightest touch of chilli and thyme and a delicious crumb with pomegranate seeds and pistachio, complemented by a delicate ice-cream with dried barberries. The perfect dessert to round off the meal.
Chocolate texture, ordered by my companion, was good but not quite so stunning, though visually very appealing.
We rounded the meal off with a glass of honey and barberry vodka. A fragrant sweet sour mouthful that neither of us really needed but that both of us enjoyed.
I really enjoyed the food here. I’m pretty sure it was a refined take on traditional dishes from Uzbekistan and the surrounding region, but I see no harm in that if what is produced is a meal that suits the UK market better. And I loved the vodka infusions – Fabio’s passion shines through.
33 Charlotte Street
London W1T 3RR