Angular banjos sound good to me…at a low volume.

Occasionally, the circumstances of a restaurant jaunt turn out to be more interesting than the actual restaurant itself.  I want to give full credit to reader “Mad Ludwig” (not his real name), who I’ve been attempting to one-up in the realm of well-executed metaphor for several weeks via e-mail.  He suggested that we do an excursion to Asia – a Bukharan (Uzbeki Kosher) restaurant that his barber (from Samarkand) recommended.  Seemed interesting, particularly since said barber claimed that Cheburechnaya (obviously a favorite of mine) was crap.

I hope the barber is better at cutting hair than food criticism: judging by the food at Asia, he’s no gourmet.  For instance, the lagman soup’s veggies and broth seemed little better than canned minestrone with some dill sprinkled in, and the thick, round, irregular noodles that I thought looked hand-pulled turned out to be mushy.  The sliced tomato and onion platter called achik-chuck was better than your average sneeze-guard-protected salad bar offering (good tomatoes), but the piddling helping of hot peppers on the side seemed to indicate an unwelcome tentativeness on the part of the chef.  If you’re going to offer ‘em, stick ‘em in the salad – spice-phobes be damned.

For the mains, I was disappointed by the chicken tabaka – Ludwig had described it as encrusted in garlic, and this presentation certainly was not.  It reminded me of the baked chicken my mother made in my youth – neither the most flavorful dish nor the most succulent.  The canned peas and peaches on the side gave us all a chuckle, and the Korean carrot salad reminded me of a flavored version of the carrots used to top banh mi.  I would say that the oil needs to be changed in the fryer, though – the French fries were a bit skanky.

The kebabs were okay – the lamb rib was tough but flavorful, and the liver carried a pleasing charcoal flavor, though I haven’t had another liver kebab to compare it to.  The lyu-lya (often spelled lula, but Ludwig was kind enough to correct me with regards to the vowel pronunciation) wasn’t cooked all the way through, but the oniony ground beef certainly would taste good on a seeded roll with some ketchup.

The bread was, of course, fabulously dense.  And the other starch, a “green” plov that included plenty of dill and bits of lamb, was also quite good, if eerily reminiscent of the similarly-oiled fried rice at Chanoodle.  

I should make a note of the décor and ambiance, too.  According to family legend, my father once told my mother never to go to a bar without windows big enough to jump through in the case of emergency.  Suffice to say, Asia did not meet that criterion.  The entrance was windowless and marble-trimmed, with a door that I can only describe as “foreboding,” and the interior was similarly institutional: the dining room was banquet-hall-sized, and trimmed with purple cloth, much like a nursing home.

Ludwig told us that it’s typical of Moscow restaurants to have an enormous video screen, a stage upon which live entertainment frequently appears, and for both to be delivered at ear-splitting volumes.  Fortunately, the music wasn’t turned up, and there was no band of babushkas to bedevil us.  I can imagine that the restaurant must be pretty smoky during more popular dining hours – the only no-smoking sign being a tiny placard near the thermostat.

Really, the experience was made by the company.  My medical school friend (he has a half-assed blog and comments here occasionally, so I suppose I should start using his pseudonym, Sophmoricles) and I were regaled from West 4th Street to 50th St./New Utrecht Ave. and all through dinner by stories of Ludwig’s time in Russia.  The country sounds like a real mess, and I can’t say that he activated any latent desire to visit, but in the abstract, the stories were hilarious.  Overloaded puddle-jumper planes with tiny wings and engines that billow black smoke on take-off?  Car doors that fall open when you lean on them, and the drunken non-taxi drivers who are ferrying you around?  Making a hasty retreat from the scene of a bus crash (in Turkey, actually)?

Not all the conversation revolved around transportation near-tragedies, I should note.  In between his gabbing with the waitress in fluent Russian (she was impressed, as was I), the conversation was wide-ranging – a regular salon, avec Baltika (served from bottles that came out of a dorm-style fridge).  Can’t say I was very useful when the discussion turned to art (yes, indeed, I am a philistine in certain regards), but Ludwig was patient and willing to explain the background on things I probably should have seen at museums I probably should have been to already.  I’m sure I’ll get to them…err…right after I’m done eating, really.

Thanks, Ludwig, for your time and generosity, and especially for putting up with my massacring Russian pronunciation – I’m looking forward to the next dinner.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Angular banjos sound good to me…at a low volume.

  1. Anonymous

    So, the chicken was less than delicious?! But it was baked with love! xoxo mommy

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